Gale Ross speaks for the leaves.
For more than a decade the retired Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry employee has been the official spokesperson for the state’s fall foliage and the go-to person for all things leaf-peeping.
Ross has been in charge of Maine’s official fall foliage website, mainefoliage.com, for the past 12 years. A service of the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, the website provides the public with weekly fall foliage reports from observations by Maine Forest Service and state park rangers throughout the state.
The website breaks the state down into seven geographic regions and tracks the foliage color conditions from mid-September through mid-October. It also offers suggestions for drives and other trips to follow the leaves.
“I believe we are going to have the typical six weeks of fall foliage this year,” Ross said. “Things should peak in northern Maine around the last of September or first of October and then progress north to south.”
However, due to dry and moderate drought conditions in parts of the state, some areas may see early defoliation, according to Aaron Bergdahl, a Maine Forest Service pathologist.
As the changing colors progress around the state, so, too, do the tourists and leaf fans hoping to catch the foliage in all of its red, yellow and orange glory.
“It’s just spectacular and gorgeous and not something other parts of the country have,” Ross said. “People are drawn to the different colors [and] we have 17 million acres of forest in Maine, so that’s a lot of leaves to come look at.”
According to the most recent available Maine tourism data, total fall visitation in 2015 was up 12.8 percent over the previous year with 9,782,253 visitors from September through November.
Thanks to the web presence, Ross said she has started getting requests for information on where to find the best fall leaf viewing from cruise ship passengers with time to kill at Maine ports of call.
“If they can plan in advance, they give me a jingle and ask what area they can get to,” Ross said. “Then they’ll rent a car and take an hour or so to travel and go leaf peeping.”
Currently, the leaves are just beginning to turn colors in Aroostook County with less than 30 percent of the leaves changing. The rest of the state is showing little to no colors, according to the report.
This is the 58th year the conservation department has issued a fall foliage report, and Ross said none of it would be possible without the foresters on the ground.
“There is really no science behind it,” she said. “It’s just simple observation from the guys out there that I transfer onto a map broken into seven zones [and] they do a great job reporting what they are seeing out there.”
The map is updated weekly through Oct. 18, or as Ross said, “until the last leaf drops,” and things have changed a bit over the year thanks to the internet and social media.
“Years ago the information was faxed into us and we’d use our little paint brushes to color and update the maps,” she said with a laugh. “Now we have a website that generates more visits than any other state website.”
Leaf peepers can sign up for updated reports from the official Maine fall foliage site and keep track of where the colors are best on several social media sites, including Facebook.
“This year we are on Instagram,” Ross said. “I told them they are going to have to teach me about that one because I had no idea how it worked.”
So far, the leaves themselves have not taken to Twitter.
“When that happens, I’m out of a job,” Ross said with a laugh.