I thought I was being very clever by being out here.
There's a cool morning wind -- one of the first of the season -- ruffling my hair, and the sun winks off the cellophane waters of Pohick Bay with the distinctive intensity of a clear morning in early fall. I'm in the middle of the bay's west branch, surrounded by the great natural amphitheater of a wooded shore, a big green horseshoe punctuated here and there by startling slashes of red and yellow.
That's what I'm here to see -- that eye-popping autumnal color that is our annual compensation for the gray monochrome about to subsume us for the duration of the R months. I thought I was going to miss it this year. All summer long, as a dreary subtext to drought and dying lawns and dirty cars, naysaying almanac readers predicted an autumn leaf show that would be more flop than fall.
"Gonna be a dull fall," they said knowingly, squinting up at the dry sky. "Trees are parched. Leaves are just gonna go straight to brown and hit the ground." (It turns out these doomsayers were full of mulch, but I'll get to that in a minute.)
Bummer. If the drought were to steal autumn, I, for one, would feel very cheated. This is my favorite outdoor season in large part because of the Jackson Pollock backdrop that our eastern deciduous forests become in mid-October. It's a ground-level fireworks display that creeps southward like a Technicolor shadow. The West may have canyon country and big open skies, but we have excellent universities, good theater and a fall color pageant unparalleled in the world. (They say only Japan, which shares our latitude, has a mix of fall colors that compares to the eastern seaboard.)
Determined to get my dose of umber and ocher without traveling to Nagano, I schemed. How to trump a drought? Water. I'll go see leaves along the water. Surely the effects of the drought must be mildest along the river beds and stream courses that have run with some water all summer long. So I loaded up my kayak and came here to one of the woodiest waterways I know, Pohick Bay Regional Park just east of Lorton.
Pohick Bay juts off the Potomac just below Washington, an inlet shaped like a whale's tail where Pohick and Accotink creeks dump fresh water into the brackish river. Paddling up the west fluke with the tapering creek, I immediately like this way of viewing fall. The still waters under the shore sharply reflect the emerging colors of the bank, at least until my own tiny wake roils them into an impressionist blur. The first harbingers of autumn color -- poison ivy and Virginia Creeper -- are shooting brilliant red tendrils through the undergrowth, small flames that will ignite this season's conflagration. Above, the red maple and the willow are just beginning to break down their green chlorophyll, exposing a hint of the orange and yellow secondary pigments that will step out for a few brief weeks of glory until the leaf finally gives up completely and dives for the Earth.
I have autumn to myself out here. I'm not being tailgated by someone in a bigger hurry to enjoy the season than I am. And there are other benefits -- scores of herons, wood ducks and other shorebirds and waterfowl stand around the shallows like yard ornaments overdone. Starlings and grackles are coalescing into their great unwieldy, acrobatic swarms. Geese bleat overhead, and a snake drapes over the tip of a submerged stump like so much scaly bunting, soaking up the last warm days before ducking out for the winter.
"It's really the nicest time of the year to be out," says Judy Lathrope of Atlantic Kayak in Alexandria. Lathrope runs weekend paddling trips featuring fall colors along Piscataway Creek and Pohick Bay through October. "It's cool and it's beautiful, the East at its best."
And so I paddle around with a certain I-told-you-so dash to my stroke, feeling very clever for being out here. In spite of the drought, I've got my glorious fall.
But as it turns out, so will you. Those who predicted a barren autumn spoke too soon.
"They were wrong," says Scott Aker, a horticulturist with the U.S. National Arboretum. "This is going to be a good year for fall foliage, maybe even an above-average year. It's amazing what a little rain will do."
A little rain? Try the wettest September since Noah pulled up his gangplank. A month of monsoon and some cool temperatures have set things very much right again for fall foliage, no matter if you see it by boat, foot or car.
A few days after my Pohick paddle, Aker and I stand together overlooking another waterway that is growing richer by the day with the autumn palette, the beautiful stretch of the Anacostia that forms the Arboretum's eastern border. We're high enough to gain a sweeping view across the river to the valley beyond -- a rolling orange and yellow quilt. The hickories along the bank are yellowing up nicely. Even the uplands, where the moisture was scarcer during the drought, are starting their turn. The sassafras are beginning to show their yellow, the sweet gums their purple, the red maples their glowing red, orange and even coral pink.
"It looks like it's building to a fairly typical mid-October peak," Aker says. "The drought has had some effect. The rain didn't come early enough for some trees that had already dropped their leaves. You're not going to get that knock-your-socks off yellow from tulip poplars this year. But otherwise we're in good shape."
The drought began to break in mid-August, which was probably just in time to head off a widespread arboreal surrender. "The minute the trees got some moisture they said `Oh. I'll hang onto my leaves a little longer and see what happens,'" In fact, the late rains have been so salutary that some trees that had slipped into early dormancy have even sprouted a second growth of new foliage -- a little bit of springtime in October.
We turn and walk past some purpling dogwoods through the Arboretum grounds, which are themselves prime grounds for viewing fall color. During the summer, the Arboretum ran its monthly water bill into six figures to keep the drought at bay. There are miles of good trails here and some stunning specimens of both local and exotic trees, including one of the largest crape myrtle collections in the country (good for reds, yellows and purples). One paper bark maple is famous for its orange, red and coral autumn coat. "I have to visit that one at some point every fall," Aker says.
If paddling the local waters or strolling the labyrinthine paths of the Arboretum are not in your seasonal plans, you'll be glad to hear that autumn is open for business along the region's favorite leaf-viewing venue -- Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park.
"Who told you that we weren't going to have good color in Shenandoah this year?" Lyn Rothgeb asked sharply. Rothgeb is Shenandoah's protective spokeswoman, and she called back with a good-natured rebuke within minutes after I phoned to check on the rumors of a dry, dull autumn within the park. Fall color is big business, and the keepers of the leaves from Brattleboro to Roanoke are quick to defend the honor of their foliage. "Shenandoah trees are beginning to exhibit autumn hues right on schedule this year. They are not showing signs of stress reported by the media in some New England states and in Maryland."
That's great news because the Shenandoah Valley really is one of the best places in the world to see fall leaves. The mix of trees and the variety of climates in this undulating terrain makes for a color show that unfolds over almost the entire season. And with 500 miles of trails and nearly 70 scenic overlooks along the 105-mile Skyline Drive, the "ohhh" and "ahhh" opportunities are ample.
There's only one problem -- everybody knows it. On a sunny fall weekend of peak leaf viewing, motoring along Skyline Drive can boast all the charm of exiting Redskins Stadium.
"I really love Shenandoah," says Aker of the Arboretum. "It's a remarkably reliable place to see beautiful fall foliage. But if you slow down to enjoy a particularly spectacular tree on Skyline Drive, people aren't going to like you."
Even Shenandoah's many hiking trails can be crowded on weekends, especially the ridge routes with good views down the valley.
Which brings us back to my secret weapon for surveying the season -- boats.
Scientist Aker kindly confirmed my half-baked hypothesis that waterways could be an arboreal sanctuary from a bad drought, even though this year's autumn disaster turned out to be a false alarm. He confirmed something else -- that under any circumstances "paddling a canoe or kayak is definitely a more placid way to enjoy fall foliage."
He's right. And that's why I felt so clever for being out here.n