Maine’s Top Foliage Expert on What to Expect This Fall
Gale Ross, the state’s fall foliage coordinator for over three decades, knows the leaves like the back of her hand.
It’s mid-August and Gale Ross is contemplating the swamp maple along her driveway. Swamp maples, also called red maples, are typically fall’s first rumblings, as they begin to change color before summer’s end. “It’s just one particular tree every year that goes to red,” says Ross, who has foliage on the mind more than most. “I will look at a little bit of a [leaf] drop in the driveway and say, ‘Oh my gosh, here it comes.’”
The South Bristol resident has been the state’s fall foliage coordinator for about three decades. Even though she retired in 2013, she returns each season to don the hat of foliage spokesperson, which helps visitors take full advantage of leaf peeping, one of Maine’s most popular tourist activities. She says it was the most fun part of her job as assistant to the commissioner of the Department of Conservation (now the Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry), which she took on shortly after she began working for the state straight out of college at age 23.
Ross starts her work in late August. One of the first people she contacts is the state’s forest pathologist, Aaron Bergdahl, to check in on the health of Maine’s forests. Drought, insects, and diseases can all have a negative impact on fall colors. She’s also watching the amount of rainfall over the summer and tuned into things like flower blooms. “Everything that could bloom did bloom this year,” she says, which bodes well for fall’s performance.
But the real success of the season depends on the weather in early fall. “We absolutely have to have warm days and cool nights,” says Ross, who grew up in Texas and spends her winters there. She grew up visiting Maine every summer, until her father retired from the military and moved the family to the state when she was 17.
Once the season starts, she begins coordinating with the many on-the-ground contacts that contribute to the creation of Maine’s weekly fall foliage report, which includes a color-coded map of Maine’s foliage progression across seven zones, ranking color change from “very low” to “past peak,” Ross’s take on the week compared to typical years, and some handpicked regional activities and events to make the most of the season. Forest service rangers send her their data and photos of all of Maine’s seven foliage zones, and if she needs a little more help to determine conditions in certain areas, she’ll enlist the state parks and historic sites for a more accurate reading.
Jim Britt, the department’s communications director, calls her the maestro orchestrating a finely tuned network of field reporters, noting that she brings her keen sense of humor and “great energy” to the role. The first report comes out in mid-September, then every Wednesday thereafter, until “the last leaf drops,” as Ross puts it, sometime in October.
The years that stand out to her are the ones with odd weather, like hurricanes blowing through or early snow that can end the season abruptly. Last year was a memorable year, not only because of the pandemic but the drought, which caused the shortest season she has reported on. So far, she hasn’t noticed any drastic changes due to climate change, but it is a concern of hers.
While Maine’s fall complexion doesn’t change much from year-to-year, the report itself, which started in 1959, has. In the beginning, rangers radioed into headquarters with news of the colors, which was then broadcast on the radio. The department started Mainefoliage.com in the mid-1990s. Social media, which was added in 2014, is now a big part of Ross’s job. Most of the stunning photos on Maine Foliage’s Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter pages are submitted by followers. Ross also gets sent photos from friends across the state of their first color sightings. When asked if she ever gets tired of it, she says no. “People like to be helpful.”
This year she’s leaning into that mentality in her reports. As leaf-peeping tourists come into a state of short-staffed businesses still recovering from the pandemic, she wants to send them the message to “just be courteous and kind and patient.” As for the foliage, Ross is projecting a great season this year, based on the amount of rain.
“She’s Maine’s Lorax,” Britt says. “She speaks for the leaves.”
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