JEFFERSON — Brad Samuels always brings his family to Maine sometime in October to check out the fall foliage and to pick some of the state’s famous apples. But because of the drought he’s read and heard a lot about, Samuels was concerned.

But when the family of five from Maryland arrived in Portland Friday before heading up to Bar Harbor over the weekend, they were pleasantly surprised.

“We kept reading about the drought and how it may be bad for leaf peeping, but not that we’ve seen,” Samuels said Monday while walking with his family at the Hidden Valley Nature Center. “We’ve spotted incredible colors all along the route from Portland to Acadia and back through central Maine. It’s been wonderful.”

Every autumn, leaves on maples, oaks and other broad-leafed trees start to change color when they slow and then stop producing chlorophyll, the pigment that makes leaves green. As the nights get longer, the green pigment, which is created by sunlight during photosynthesis, starts to disappear and the reds, oranges, yellows, purples and other pigments start to show.

Across central Maine, the change from summer to autumn colors is well underway.

According to the most recent Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry’s Fall Foliage Report, the state is experiencing moderate to high color spreading, and the Kennebec Valley region is at a moderate level with its peak expected in the next week or so. Franklin and Somerset counties have already reached peak foliage with 75 percent or more of the trees changing color.

“The huts and cabins and even campsites have been chock full of peepers, and the day use (of the center) has been crazy busy,” Ali Stevenson, communications and membership manager for the Midcoast Conservancy, said by email Monday. The conservancy manages the Jefferson nature center. “We’re definitely peaking around here, but it’s as beautiful a fall at the Hidden Valley Nature Center as I can remember.”

“Despite the drought conditions we’ve experienced throughout most of the state, the colors are emerging on a daily basis and are brilliant,” said fall foliage spokesperson Gale Ross. “I might even go out on a limb and say that I think the colors on the trees are more vibrant than in past years in all parts of the state.”

Last week, the Maine Drought Task Force met for the third time this year, and officials said they may consider calling a state of emergency if drought conditions continue to worsen. But for fall foliage, the drought isn’t having the effect some might have expected.

“Honestly, I thought it was really going to be dramatically different than what I’ve seen in the past,” said Samuels. His natural reaction to hearing about the drought was to assume plants and trees are dry and dying, so when he saw all the vibrant colors, he was surprised. “I just hope that enough people realize that the foliage here is as good as it’s ever been.”

More than 55 years ago, Forest Commissioner Austin Wilkins asked Maine Forest Service rangers to keep track and report the amount of color change and leaf drop each week. The reports were sent via radio to officials in Augusta, and from there they were mailed or phoned to Maine news outlets.

The state’s official fall foliage website, mainefoliage.com, gives weekly reports on leaf drop and color change starting in September. It tracks the conditions through the middle of October.

“My wife (Amanda) checked the website and it said ‘peak’ and ‘moderate’ for most of the state, so we had a good idea that we’d see some colors,” Samuels said. The family planned to enjoy a late afternoon picnic after some hiking before heading down Interstate 95 toward Baltimore. “We’re already looking forward to next year’s trip.”

Scott Cowger, owner of the Maple Hill Farm Inn and Conference Center in Hallowell, said he’s seen a steady stream of people staying at his inn because of the foliage season. Cowger said trees near the inn, off Inn Road near the Jamies Pond Wildlife Management Area, are peaking.

Although the figures are not in for this year, the Maine Office of Tourism reported that fall visitation in 2015 was up nearly 13 percent over the previous year with more than 9.7 million people visiting the state between September and November.

Samuels hopes people will have the chance to visit Maine before the calendar changes to November. If he and his family lived closer, he said they’d probably be back one more time at the end of the month.

“It might be a cliché, but with the way the climate is changing, we want to make sure we can get outdoors and enjoy nature while we still can,” said Amanda Samuels. “Our kids love it, we love it and everybody should experience it like we have these last few days.”

In Franklin and Somerset counties, an exceptional fall foliage season is driving tourists to the region.

“The foliage has outdone itself this year,” Karen Ogulnick, Rangeley Lakes Chamber of Commerce, executive director, said Monday.

With the northern half of Somerset and Franklin counties falling in Zone No. 5 of the state’s foliage zones, visitors have been met with peak foliage conditions and a low rate of leaf drop.

Eric Angevine, owner of the Sterling Inn in Caratunk, said this year has been the best fall foliage season his business has seen in recent years. The 15-room inn has had no vacancies for the last two weekends. Angevine said the increase in business may also be from the inn being listed for online reservations on a new website.

But Angevine said this year’s foliage has been receiving great reviews from his guests.

“Everybody is raving about how it appears right now. Those of us who live up here sometimes take (the foliage) for granted,” Angevine said. “But it is pretty spectacular.”

Guests of the inn have typically been staying for one night. Angevine said that when tourists come for the foliage, they typically move around to different areas of the state to see the colors vary.

In Rangeley, Ogulnick said good weather and the even better foliage is continuing a strong summer tourism season through the fall. “We’ve been very busy, and the foliage is absolutely spectacular,” Ogulnick said.

While Olgunick didn’t have firm statistics, she said tourism and traffic to the Rangeley Lakes area has been “significantly up” this year compared to past fall tourism seasons.

Peak foliage color hit the western region of the state just in time for Columbus Day Weekend — earlier than last year’s peak, according to the foliage report for Oct. 7, 2015. At this time last year, zone five was only seeing low to moderate foliage conditions.

Standing at a rest area along U.S. Route 2 in Skowhegan Monday, Susan Goodwin of Brewer took photos of foliage along the Kennebec River. Goodwin said she was returning home after three days camping at Mt. Blue State Park in Weld.

“It was beautiful there and very busy with visitors,” Goodwin said.

Staff writer Lauren Abbate contributed reporting.


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