ROCHESTER, Vt. — For Doon Hinderyckx, the owner of Green Mountain Bikes, it is hard to remember how last year’s fall foliage looked.
Along with the rest of the Rochester community, he was too busy working to repair the devastation caused by Tropical Storm Irene.
“Everyone was in so much shock last year,” Hinderyckx said. “They didn’t notice the colors.”
As New England settles into autumn, “leaf-peepers” around the region are readying for what promises to be a stellar season for foliage, a blitz of bright hues expected to result from even-keeled summer weather and recent cold spells.
And nowhere is the start of leaf-turning more welcome than in central Vermont, where flood damage after Irene last year brought tourism to a trickle.
In layman’s terms: “It looks really, really good,” said Paul Schaberg, research plant physiologist with the US Forest Service.
Tom Olson, director of the New England Maple Museum in Pittsford, Vt., took a similarly straightforward attitude to the fall’s prospects for tourism.
“It can’t be any worse than last year,” Olson said, recalling tourists who were deterred from the region after they learned that major roads were closed after stretches of pavement were washed away.
Now, it’s clear the region is thrilled at another season and a chance to shrug off the devastation of the previous year.
Of course, Vermont isn’t the only New England state set to blossom in bright colors this fall. Maine and New Hampshire foliage reports show that the northern regions of both states have already reached peak leaf-turning.
Further south, trees have not year reached their leafy climax. This week, in Rochester, hillsides looked as if they had been sprinkled with powdered rust. Give it a week, maybe two, locals said, and the mountains would be ablaze with the oranges and reds that draw hordes of leaf-peepers to the region.
Olson said a few chilly nights had “got the leaves moving” — not only were there yellows and oranges, but he saw more speckled reds than he would usually see this time of year.
“Sometimes you see just the yellows and you say, ‘Gee whiz, this isn’t too much,’ ” Olson said. “But then you throw in some reds, and it’s like, ‘Wow!’ ”
Hinderyckx said he’s looking forward to “a long, lingering, warm fall” — and even more, the tourists good weather will bring.
Angela Owen, an employee at Sandy’s Books and Bakery in the center of town, said she’s already seen a steady flow of visitors looking to gaze at leaves and also gawk at at road construction and houses felled by the floodwaters.
“We’ll really get to enjoy it this year,” Own said. “There’s a lot of hope out here.”
As for her foliage forecast?
“I heard that it might be a little earlier this year,” she said, coy about making any hard-and-fast predictions for the unpredictable leaves. “But this is all just hearsay from people in town.”
Local predictions on impending leaf-turning are known for incorporating more than a touch of legend and divination — even for the scientist.
“Even though we understand the science, there’s a level of uncertainty that’s kind of frustrating — but it’s also kind of cool,” said Schaberg, who conducts research on the how and why of leaf-turning. “It adds to the adventure.”
Scientists are still trying to learn more about what exactly makes the leaves change colors. The yellows are a product of photosynthesis — as days get shorter, green chlorophylls that use the sun to make food begin to break down, causing bright green to fade to yellow.
But what causes those shocking reds?
“These leaves are destined to die and they’re all going to fall off the tree. Why would the tree bother to use resources to build a new pigment?” Schaberg said.
The US Forest Service is trying to answer that. They have conducted tests showing that red leaves are harder to pull off branches than yellow or orange leaves. Increased vascular strength might suggest those leaves are helping ferry some extra nutrients back into the tree before the leaf dies and falls off.
“It’s a small investment up front for a bigger gain in the long run,” Schaberg said.
Even though the leaves were still short of their peak, Jane and Mark Allen, 54 and 55, were impressed by the yellowing leaves they found in Waitsfield, Vt. this week.
“It’s definitely not like this in England,” said Mark Allen, who hails from a suburb of Birmingham in the United Kingdom.
Jeanette McClinton, 62, said she knew she was a little early for the brightest hues but she’d come to Vermont from Ontario for a quilting tour.
“Next week, probably, the leaves will be perfect,” she said.