Good time for a fall road trip

Fall color continues to spread across the Upper Peninsula, with peak color one to two weeks away.

Some color has been evident in the eastern U.P., Pure Michigan travel officials report.

Currently, area residents and visitors to the U.P. can expect find yellow aspens and red maples around the St. Ignace area.

The best viewing at the current time can be found along the Mackinac Trail north of St. Ignace and the Brevort Lake area, which is reporting an amazing color show, Pure Michigan reports.

Peak is expected within the next two weeks, officials said.

It’s a good time an autumn road trip, or a stroll, or a bike ride.

Celebrating the fall colors is one of the benefits of living in this area.

Autumn colors have been glorified in literature, legend, songs, and works of art since ancient times.

Among the legends handed down through generations are these:

– The mythical Jack Frost brings reds and purples to the forest by pinching the leaves with his icy fingers. The hues of yellow, gold, and brown are mixed on his paint palette and applied with quick broad strokes of his brush as he silently moves among the trees to decorate them.

– Native Americans tell stories of celestial hunters killing a great bear in the autumn sky. The bear’s blood drips on forests, changing many leaves to red. Other trees are turned yellow by the fat that splatters out of the kettle as the hunters cook the meat.

While these fictional tales are entertaining, we can also take pleasure in understanding the truth of fall’s color change.

Geography, growth habits, the physics of light and color, plant pigments, leaf physiology and anatomy, and weather conditions all play important roles in the story of autumn.

Bill Cook, Upper Peninsula forester for the Michigan State University Extension Service, explains some of the factors that determine tree color.

“Color intensity is a function of tree health and September temperatures,” he said. “The timing is relatively consistent, as it is controlled by a balance between dark and light hours. This window is roughly 10 days to two weeks.”

Tree species comply, more or less, with their biological clocks, but not every species uses the same clock.

The ashes go first. Oaks will persist longer.

Trees along the Lake Superior shore have milder microclimates and often change colors at the end of the window, Cook said.

Forests on the shallow soils of northern Iron County are among the first landscapes to transform.

The Upper Peninsula has an array of hardwood species that produce a spectacle of autumn colors unsurpassed by other regions.

We have the brilliant yellow and oranges of the sugar maples, the crimson of the soft maple, the delicate yellow of the birch and the purple of the ash.

You may have noticed the color changes in the area.

Red maples are the first to be noticed because of their scarlet color. These harbingers of fall are exceptions, not yet the real thing.

Black ash normally is the first tree species to go. They often turn a dusky yellow, but they are sometimes brilliant.

Oddly enough, it’s also one of the last trees to leaf out in the spring.

Although the end product is a remarkable show, the process a tree goes through to produce fall colors is even more spectacular.

It begins when shortening days signal hormones in the tree to begin winter preparations.

Trees are amazingly thrifty, and will first reabsorb all the proteins and other valuable chemicals from the leaves.

The tree will seal off its water supply by building a layer of cells at the base of each leaf stem and another layer, like scar tissue, to cover the wound when the leaf falls.

As these cell layers cut off the supply of fresh water to the leaves, the chlorophyll, which gives a leaf its green color, breaks down and disappears.

This is when a tree shows its true colors, revealing hues that were always present but obscured by the green of chlorophyll.

The intensity and visual quality of the fall colors can be affected by weather, Michigan State University Extension officials said.

Drought might mean a quicker reabsorption of the chlorophyll. The red, yellow and purple pigments may stand out better, and maybe for a little longer.

Rains and wind, obviously, can shorten fall color viewing.

Frost can also have influence on the quality of fall colors, but not the timing.

The biggest portion of our hardwood, or broad-leaf, forests consists of maples, aspens and birches.

The crimson and gold color is from the maples, which put on a show that pretty much beats the pants off color changes in other parts of the country.

Our aspens also turn a fantastic yellow.

Birch are much the same way, and a bright yellow pure paper birch stand with snow-white bark is an inspiring experience.

Let us not forget the softwoods, or evergreens.

Although they do retain needles year-round, they don’t retain them all.

The older needles nearer to the trunk fall off every year.

The only exception is the tamarack, which loses its needles with a blazing aurora of gold.

Fall color is arguably the favorite of all seasonal changes. Enjoy it.