Autumn Comes to Maine
We've lived in a lot of places, with different climates. Some of these places had spectacular scenery, but no place I've ever been compares to the color show that nature puts on right here in New England every autumn. I think that Edwin Way Teale was right on the money with his opinion that our fall is "unsurpassed anywhere around the world". No matter how many times I witness the changing of the colors in our forests, I am never bored. Every autumn is different from the ones that have come before - sometimes the colors are bright and vibrant, sometimes more muted and subtle - but always glorious! Add the wonderful bright blue skies and crisp air, and it is no wonder that folks come from all over just to "leaf peep" every autumn in New England.
Autumn in Maine more than just the color show - it is also the season of transition for people and for nature. The beginning of the transition for people "from away" is Labor Day, when summer is officially over. Almost overnight the beaches are empty. Boats and docks are pulled out of the water, and the summer camps are closed up till next year. Traffic lightens up, and the kids go back to school. Those that will spend the winter in Maine take this season to finish up the outside chores, harvest the garden, and get in a supply of firewood (or fill up the oil tank).
Autumn is also the time when nature gets ready for winter. We've been hearing the acorns drop from the oak trees in the back yard all month, and the squirrels scurrying to collect them in. Migratory birds leave for the south - flights of Canada geese can be heard overhead, and the summer songbirds have disappeard from our bird feeders. They will be replaced by our winter birds, once the foraging for wild seeds becomes more difficult. Furry critters add their winter coats, and deer go into the rut (their fall mating time).
Autum is usually defined in the Northern Hemisphere as the period between the autumnal equinox (when day and night are equal in length) and the winter solstice (the year's shortest day). This year autumn is from September 22 until December 21. During this period, temperatures gradually decrease and daylight gets shorter. As winter approaches, the ground temperature has dropped to the point where snow will "stick" and stay. Before then, it is common to have snow, but it usually melts and is gone by the next day.
Autumn is the time for the gathering of the garden crops - pumpkins and squash, corn and potatoes, the last of the tomatoes. The roadside stands are decorated with corn stalks and pumpkins, and the first apple cider of the season comes on sale.
Temperatures drop in the evenings, and we start to get frosts. It is always a hustle to get things in that are sensitive to frost. Marilyn called up and reminded us that we needed to be harvesting the herbs.
"Most of them don't take the sharp cold well, so cut and hang them before you get a hard frost up there" she said.
Old friends Lee and Linda were back east from Utah visiting Maine - their daughter was going to finish hiking the Appalachian Trail at Mt. Kathadin the next week. They came over that night for supper. After eating, Lee and I were sharing some brown sipping likker on the back porch. "The weatherman says it is going to drop below freezing tonight - where is your herb garden? - let's get them in" he suggested.
"Sure, why not" I said. We recruited Linda, Penny, and the dog for the project, and under the spotlights all of us cleaned out the herb garden. I got out some string, and we hung bunches of the different herbs from nails that someone had left around the top of the kitchen walls. The room was filled with the sweet, pungent aroma of rosemary, thyme, sage, parsley, basil, mint, chives, and oregano.
Just as Lee had predicted, we had a hard frost that night. When I got up at 6:00 am the next morning to let the dog out, all the cars and grass were covered with the first frost of the season. The day warmed up to a bright blue 50oF. fall day, but the damage had been done.
There were probably 400 quarts of blueberries left on the bushes when we went to bed the night before. I was working at a late season harvest - we wanted to bring some up to the Crabtree family reunion the next weekend, and we needed a few more for the freezer to carry us through the winter.
There were still 400 quarts on the bushes the next morning, but the frost had touched them all. They were all now soft and mushey. I picked a couple of quarts which Penny cooked down into blueberry syrup, but the rest of them were lost. The bright blue berries were real pretty, however, in the crimson red of the blueberry bush leaves.
Autumn is also called fall, since this is the time of the year when leaves fall from the trees. Diminishing daylight hours and falling temperatures induce trees to prepare for winter. One of the first steps in winter dormancy is development of a corky layer of cells between the woody part of the tree and the leaf stalk. This restricts the flow of water and carbohydrates to the leaves, chlorphyll production in the leaves is slowed, and the green color in the leaves begins to fade.
Leaves contain chlorphyll and carotenoids. The former gives leaves their basic green color, and the latter produce yellow, orange and brown colors. A third group of chemicals, anthocyanins, are produced in the autumn, in response to bright light and an excess of plant sugars trapped within leaf cells due to the corky layer. The anthocyanins produce the reds, scarlets, and orange-red colors in leaves. (There are several links at the bottom of this entry to websites that explain the chemistry of autumn colors in more detail, if you are interested.)
The brightest array of fall colors comes with warm sunny days followed by cool nights, with temperatures below 45oF. The degree of colors may vary from tree to tree, depending on the exposure of the tree to direct sunlight. Different species display different colors as well. Red maple turns a brilliant scarlet, sugar maples are orange-red. Oaks are red, brown or russet. Beeches are a light tan, while poplars are yellow. Blueberry bushes and several shrubs were bright crimson.
The autumn this year was wonderful - ideal conditions for bright colors, blue skies and crisp days, with cool nights. Ideal conditions also for a growing New England phenomenon - the "leaf-peeper". There are any number of "foliage hot lines" and "foliage maps and route planners" available, to let folks know where the colors were at their peak.
All of this is understandable - because watching the colors change from day to day at the Farmhouse was a delight. Every day brought something new, with a new tree blazing forth at the edge of the fields.
Every trip in the car, or walking the country lanes, was a holiday. The "Indian Summer" weather stayed and stayed this fall, and you thought that you were going to have this delightful sensory pleasure forever!
Leaf-peeping is also a big tourist business in New England. Some roads are so clogged with cars, creeping along and stopping to take pictures, that it makes us appreciate the times when the leaves will be gone and nature gets around to the serious business of getting ready for winter. (There are some fall foliage links at the bottom of this entry, for your trip planning next fall.)
There is something almost magic about fishing in the fall. The waters appear black, and the colored leaves from the trees floating on the surface provide a vivid contrast. Whether you are in your shirtsleeves under the bright, crisp skies of Indian Summer, or in slickers and fisherman's gloves against the brisk winds, it is a joy. The brown trout are spawning, and the landlock salmon are usually overeager for your fly. Sink-tip or full-sink lines with streamers or wooly buggers are the tackle of choice, although it is not uncommon to have a small hatch during the middle of the day if the temperature is right.
Every fall my son Jim and I try to take a day or two at the end of the stream fishing season to close out the fly fishing year. This year we went up to the Androscoggin River at Errol, NH, and the Connecticut River above Colebrook, NH, for a weekend with Ken Hastings. The colors were beautiful, and we had fun catching landlock salmon and rainbow trout on streamers.
Adding to the glory of autumn fishing were the large flights of Canadian geese overhead. The "V" formations of birds were heading south for the winter, and filled the air with their honking as we floated down the river.
It seemed a shame to quit fishing, however, with the weather continuing so fine. The last Friday in October turned out to be a glorious fall day - bright blue sky and temperature in the 50's. My fishing buddy Jack and I just couldn't pass up the chance to catch the late afternoon tidal change on the Mousam River at Kennebunk. We'd heard about the sea run brown trout that were gathered in the river at the upper end of the tidal influence, and wanted to give them a shot before we put up the fly rods for the season.
The fellow at the Orvis shop in Kennebunkport recommended a couple of spots on the river, and suggested "foliage colored" streamers, a zug bug shrimp imitation, or a prinz nymph. Jack and I had some orange streamers and nymphs that fit the bill in our fly boxes, and we hiked into one of the pools he had recommended.
It was dusk, and the tide was ebbing - supposedly the best time to fish for sea run browns. Jack waded out and started casting across the current with a streamer, while I worked the head of the pool with a nymph. Dusk doesn't last long this time of year, and by the time that it was so dark that we couldn't see our lines, we headed back to the car. Jack had caught and released a nice 14" brown. Not to be outdone, I had managed to snag an old bicycle, a couple of tree limbs, and got hung up on the bottom several times. I guess even the brown trout appreciate autumn in their choice of "foliage colored" flies!
Old Ammunition, Old Rifles, and Old Nimrods
Autumn is also the season for deer hunting. Traditionally, when the weather starts to get frosty, the white tail deer start their mating ritual. Also traditionally, this is when hunters have sought out deer for their winter meat. The hunt is a social event as well as a marker of the seasons. I look forward to rambling through the fall woods looking for deer sign - as if I needed an excuse. Then, as opening day draws near, there are plans and preparations with good friends. Even the smell of Hoppe's No. 9 gun solvent when cleaning my rifle brings back fond memories of hunting with my dad and his friends when I was just a teenager.
"So, are we going to hunt at your place or mine opening day?" I asked Jack. "I've seen some buck sign down behind the house, and it's good deer country"
"How about both - I'll come over and we'll hunt your place in the morning, and then my place in the afternoon" he suggested.
"Sounds good to me - first light is about 6:30am and we should be in the woods by then. I'll pick out a couple of spots to sit."
My boy Jim called as well, and said he'd like to join us as well on opening day. Both Jim and Jack are careful, observant hunters that are a pleasure to be in the woods with. I was really geared up for opening day, as a new Maine resident.
The last Saturday in October was opening day of the firearms deer season for Maine residents this year. The season opens for residents and non-residents the following Monday and runs for the month of November. This year, the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife is predicting nearly 40,000 deer will be bagged, the largest deer kill since 1968 (see Playing the odds). There is no hunting on Sundays in Maine - an old blue law that has been on the books for years.
As I was getting out my hunting gear, I was about to take down my favorite deer rifle - a Remington 700 30-06 with a 3x9 scope. But an old gun that my father used to use caught my eye - a Model 1892 Winchester 38-40 lever-action rifle. I don't know where or when he had bought it, but the Model 1892 hasn't been manufactured since 1931. From the serial number on it, I expect that the rifle is probably 80 or 90 years old.
I first started deer hunting with my father in Effingham, NH, back when I was only 14 or 15. One of my most vivid lessons in gun safety involved that old gun. My father and I, along with Gene Moody and two or three others, were gathered on a dirt road on a cold, frosty morning. I'd just loaded the magazine and had jacked a shell into the chamber. When I eased off the hammer, my gloves slipped, and the gun went off! Luckily, I'd remembered my dad's lessons and the gun was pointed safely at the dirt road. The bullet blew a big hole in the frozen ground, everyone jumped, and my father calmly said "you know, Pard, there are a lot more deer up there in the woods than in this dirt road. Watch yourself." That was all it took to put me in my place, and remind me to watch myself!
The old rifle is in wonderful shape - I've tried to take pretty good care of it. I've not hunted with it for at least 40 years, and have only fired a round or two through it for target practice from time to time. The old 38-40 Winchester uses a 180-grain soft nose bullet, and has less than half the muzzle velocity of the 30-06, and has a huge drop of 3.2 inches at 100 yards (and more than 3 feet at 300 yards!). It is clearly not a gun for wide-open spaces, but that slow and heavy bullet makes it a wonderful gun for hunting in heavy brush. I figure it ought to be just the gun the thick beech, spruce, and fir second growth down behind the house.
I dug through the ammo box looking for a box of 38-40 shells that I'd bought for the rifle recently. The only thing I could find was a box that I got from my father. He probably picked these up in the 1940s - the box had smoke marks from the house fire in Hudson, which was in 1952.
Somehow it was appropriate - for an old nimrod like me to go hunting with an 80-year old rifle, with 60-year old ammunition. And that was the rig that I had, ready to hit the woods, when Jack showed up at the door dark and early on Saturday morning.
Hunting is still very much a local cultural event here in mid-Maine. There was a Hunters' Breakfast put on by the Fire Department down at the Sebago Town Hall where you could meet your neighbors, fill up on sausage, eggs and baked beans - all beginning at 4:30 am. Hunting is often a family activity, and blaze orange is the uniform everywhere. People ask if you've gotten your deer, and you are not socially and politically incorrect if you hunt. I appreciate this as one of the joys of living in a rural state where most people still have close ties to the land.
In our area nearly all hunting is done on private land. Very little of this private land is posted, and all the private lumber company land is open to hunting as well. I can head down behind the Farmhouse and go nearly two miles before coming to another house. The woods are bounded by dirt roads and stone walls, so it's nearly impossible to get lost. If you just keep going in a straight line you'll come out somewhere within a mile or so.
I sat on a stump on a little hemlock knoll where I could see a game trail and a buck scrape and rub that I'd found on my pre-season scouting. Jack moved off to the north along a beech ridge and found a spot to set a couple of hundred yards away. It hadn't been cold enough for the rut to really begin, but these were encouraging signs nonetheless.
The woods grew light as the sun came up on a clear, blue sky. The smell of the fall leaves was wonderful, and I was comfortable in only a hunter orange vest and light cap. The partridge and squirrels were noisy in the fall leaves. Pretty, but not real good conditions for deer hunting - the winds picked up gusty and kept changing direction. The beeches and oaks still had most of their leaves and visibility was short. It turned into a poor day to either be sitting on a deer stand, or for pooching through the woods still hunting.
In the course of the morning we met several neighbors down in the woods as well. About 7:30 am I heard two shots fairly near by, and at 8:00 am I heard someone walking in the leaves, just beyond a small coppice of beech saplings. It was Jason, taking a day off from running the hardware store. His brother (and our next door neighbor) Alan had jumped two does, and he had gotten a couple of shots off. The shots had missed, and he and Jason were hoping to jump them again. Jason had also seen another neighbor and his boy who were in the woods.
Eventually Jack and Alan and I met up and pushed one little piece where Alan thought the deer had gone - but with no luck. At that point, it was time for a cup of coffee, so Jack and I headed back to the Farmhouse. Jim was there waiting for us, and we made plans for the next area to hunt.
"Why are you hunting with that old thing?" Jim asked, looking at my 38-40 Winchester.
"I don't know - just thought I would. It's a good brush gun, and I haven't hunted with it for years."
"Does it still shoot?" he asked
"I expect so - if you hear a "click" and a string of blue curses from me, you'll know that the ammunition is no good though."
"Isn't your front sight loose?" Jim asked, picking up the rifle and looking at it more closely.
The front sight of my rifle had come loose, and was about to fall off. I knocked it back in place with my knife and thought nothing more of it.
We pooched through the woods south of the Farmhouse and found some pretty good sign. Jim jumped a deer in brush so thick that he couldn't even get a glimpse of it. After lunch, we headed over to Jack's place - with a short detour down the road to help a neighbor hang his deer in his shed. He'd bagged a nice spike horn up near Tiger Hill in the morning.
Jack's Leavitt Hill Farm is about 20 minutes west of us, near the NH state line. The old farmhouse sits on a hill with a great view of the mountains off to the north. At the bottom of his field, there is a big stretch of woods - both his land, and timber company land of the Leavitt Plantation. Jack and his neighbors have been effectively brokering a deal whereby the 8,000 acres of land will stay in timber production, open to recreation, through a land trust/conservation easement option.
We did a mile-long traverse down back of his house toward the South River that Jack thought might produce some deer. To make a long hunting story short, about half way through the woods I jumped a three-point buck and the old Winchester with its old ammunition worked fine. It was a 50-yard shot across an opening left from logging out the balsam fir pulp. The 145-pound animal made for a long, heavy drag back to the nearest skid trail and logging road. Jack and Jim helped the last couple of hundred yards to the truck. We got out of the woods as it was turning dark, with a cold wind chilling us to the bone.
At the check-in station at Jordan's Store in Sebago, we had the 20th deer checked in on opening day. Greg, the fellow doing the check-in, filled out the form with name, address, etc.
"And what kind of gun did you use?" he asked
"An old 38-40 Winchester."
"What was that again?" he asked, not quite believing what I'd said.
"38-40 - here's one of the cartridges" I showed him one of my shells.
"Well, we don't see those around here much any more" he said, entering the information on the form. I agreed - a 38-40 is an unusual caliber, and besides most sensible people don't go out hunting with a museum piece.
Jim and I hung the deer in the barn, and a couple of days later cut him into steaks and roasts. I found a place in East Conway that made up some spicy venison sausage as well (I gave up on that part of the deer dressing routine years ago). I really love venison, although Jim and I are the only ones in the family that do. And now I can clean the old Winchester and put it back in the gun safe for another day in the field. For me the deer season is over - I can still be in the woods but with a shotgun for partridge.
Bring on Winter - I'm Ready!
And, as the leaves fall off the trees and the days get colder, those of us who live with autumn in Maine will also be that much more ready for winter and all the joys and delights that it brings. Living with it is so much more satisfying than simply driving to fall or winter from away, or at least I think so.
Allen and Penny Crabtree
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Last updated November 12, 2000
Copyright © 2000, Allen Crabtree
Copyright © 2000, Allen Crabtree