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Spotters’ colorful language helps NY with Fall Foliage Report

Two people enjoy a paddle boat on Mirror Lake in the village of Lake Placid the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 14. (News photo — Andy Flynn)

TUPPER LAKE — Using words like “yellow, orange and red” to describe the changing foliage in the Adirondacks isn’t specific enough for Regina Rockburn, a longtime spotter for New York’s weekly Fall Foliage Report and former English teacher at the Tupper Lake High School.

Why use “yellow” when “mac and cheese” may be more accurate?

Rockburn used “mac and cheese” one time in a report to Eric Scheffel, the senior public information specialist who’s been administering the Fall Foliage Report for Empire State Development’s I LOVE NY program since 1995.

“I put colors in and sometimes he’ll say, ‘I don’t know if I want to use that color,'” Rockburn said.

But it wasn’t just any mac and cheese. It was Kraft macaroni and cheese.

This file photo from Oct. 5, 2016 shows peak foliage at Heart Lake outside of the village of Lake Placid, on the Adirondak Loj property owned by the Adirondack Mountain Club. (News photo — Andy Flynn)

“And he goes, ‘You think we should really do that?’ For sure, Eric. I said, ‘Everybody knows Kraft mac and cheese color.'”

This year’s Fall Foliage Report — featuring a new enhanced interactive progression map at www.iloveny.com — was launched on Wednesday, Sept. 8. It’s half report and half forecast for the coming week, and the state uses it to promote leaf-peeping tourism. Rockburn said she enjoys helping the state promote what she calls “beautiful adventures of color.”

Foliage season is an important time for New York’s economy. In 2018, the state reported that it hosted more than 63 million visitors between September and November the year before and generated about $28 billion in economic impact across the state.

Due to its longevity, and the growing number of spotters, it’s been a successful program for Empire State Development. When Scheffel began working with the Fall Foliage Report, there were 45 spotters, he said Tuesday, Sept. 14. When the News spoke with him in 2016, there were 66 spotters, and now there are more than 85. Some work for visitor bureaus and tourist attractions, and others are simply volunteers who love nature.

“It’s funny because people come and go, and Eric just relies on us like he knows we’re going to do it,” Rockburn said. “We know the trees, the areas.”

Here is the map for the New York Fall Foliage Report for Sept. 15-21, 2021. (Image by I Love New York)

Rockburn and her husband Jim Carroll have been volunteer spotters since the late 1990s. They live in Tupper Lake and have a camp at nearby Mount Arab. They cover the Tri-Lakes region, including Saranac Lake and Lake Placid.

“We know the areas that have good photo opps, and there are certain tree areas that are good, so you just sort of count on them,” Rockburn said.

Spotters send in their weekly reports Monday morning so the state can release the updated map on Wednesday. That’s where experience comes into play — knowing what the leaves may do from Wednesday through the following Tuesday. Based on reports from the past 20 years or so, Rockburn and Carroll can accurately predict what percentage of leaves will see foliage changing and how brilliant they will be.

Their report filed on Monday, Sept. 13, for example, stated that the Adirondacks would have 40% of its trees changing colors, and the brilliance would be “above average.”

“I’m not saying it’s 40% now by any means,” Rockburn said Sept. 14, “but I am assuming — just from our past records — that it should be around that.”

The report will also say how far into the foliage season a region will be. This week, she said the foliage season in the Adirondacks is close to the mid-point.

Spotters also have an opportunity to send Scheffel comments they feel are appropriate. This week, the comments from Rockburn and Carroll were: “The weather forecast for a succession of unseasonably warm, sunny days and cool, crisp nights with no frost will provide the ingredients for a dazzling foliage display. These conditions produce an abundance of sugar in the leaf, but the cool nights prevent the sugar from moving out. This combination of ample sugar and plentiful sunshine stimulate the production of brilliant hues.”

When it comes to writing down the predominating colors, that’s when Rockburn likes to get creative.

“Last week, we had tons of pictures of rhubarb and cranberry along the Raquette (River),” she said. “It was gorgeous. We went back down there two days ago, and the leaves are all wilted, gone. … I was actually hoping to get some good pictures, sort of the progression.”

This week: “A rosy, mustard glow marks the landscape with the leaves transitioning to goldenrod, maize, saffron, ginger, scarlet, cranberry, and raspberry.”

Rockburn makes sure that the photos she submits are authentic; none of them are touched up with Adobe PhotoShop.

This year, I LOVE NY introduced an enhanced, interactive map on its website that tracks weekly foliage change and progression across the state throughout the season. It showcases foliage viewing locations in each region and has links to nearby attractions.

New York has one of the longest and most colorful foliage seasons in the U.S., spanning from early September through the middle of November. Visitors to the I LOVE NY website can see reports for New York’s 11 vacation regions: Adirondacks, Catskills, Thousand Islands-Seaway, Chautauqua-Allegheny, Hudson Valley, New York City, Long Island, Finger Lakes, Central New York, Greater Niagara and Capital-Saratoga.

As for the big question — “When is peak foliage?” — in her neck of the woods, Rockburn said it’s usually between Sept. 24 and 28.

“If over the years you’ve done it enough, then the glorious pictures are around that time,” she said. “The sun, the chemicals in the leaves, it’s Mother Nature. … If it’s cold at night, the sugar can’t get out of the leaves, so it creates these really brilliant colors.”

See New York’s latest Fall Foliage Report HERE.