Tom Ross: Tree leaves run late for fall date | SteamboatToday.com

Tom Ross: Tree leaves run late for fall date

Celebrated Steamboat Springs nature photographer Rod Hanna used software called Photomatix Pro to blend five exposures of the same scene to achieve this image of a late autumn sunset behind Lake Catamount.

— If it strikes you that we should be seeing gold in the hills surrounding Steamboat by now, you're not mistaken.

Typically, I expect to see aspen leaves turning yellow in the gladed tree skiing area known as Closet in mid-September. They're officially late for our date.

I don't know anyone who tracks the changing of the seasons in the Colorado high country more closely than Steamboat landscape photographer Rod Hanna. He has thousands of great images of blazing aspen leaves stored on his hard drive, but they aren't enough. Hanna has published a 220-page coffee table book of his best fall color images entitled "Colorado's Seasons of Gold." And he still gets jumpy this time of year as he tracks fall color reports from Hahn's Peak to Dallas Divide.

Hanna used to spend his autumn afternoons working as the official photographer of the Kansas City Chiefs and, later, the Denver Broncos. Now he takes weeklong jaunts into the woods in his SUV.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention Hanna brought me along for the ride and contracted with me to write a few essays for "Seasons of Gold." But I'm not his business partner, and I really don't have a profit motive. I'm just saying, if you can't wait for the leaves to show off, check out Hanna's images. You can leaf through a digital version of the book at http://www.rodhanna.com/book.php.

I poked the fall color guru this week to see if he agreed the quakies were behind schedule this year. Dubious at first, he emailed back that after checking his files from 2010, it is indeed true. On Sept. 16 last year, Hanna pointed his big Nikon at a patch of intensely yellow and orange aspen trees overlooking the switchbacks on Buffalo Pass.

So what's the explanation? Why are the leaves late? All this rain isn't helping.

The Rocky Mountain Region of the U.S. Forest Service has posted on its website the most detailed description of the chemistry behind fall colors I have ever read.

It explains how shorter and colder days transform pigments in the leaves that also are associated with the endothermic reaction that transforms the sun's energy into energy the plants can use to grow.

As chlorophyll, which gives leaves their green color in summer, begins to fade, other pigments come to the forefront. But it's much more complex than that.

The description goes on to describe the role of carotene, chloroplasts and anthocyanins in autumn leaves. But if you don't want to get technical, the Forest Service has this advice: "The brightest autumn colors are produced when dry, sunny days are followed by cool, dry nights."

And Hanna has photography tips for you.

■ Do some research and make a plan. Hanna recommends John Fielder's book, "Best of Colorado," to identify image-rich aspen groves across the state. And for updated reports from the field, visit the Nature Photography Network's Rocky Mountain site at http://www.colorado.naturephotographers.net, and check out the Hot Spots and Forum tabs. Accomplished photographers check in from the field to let you know whether the leaves surrounding Maroon Lake near Aspen are about to peak.

■ Come into the light. Autumn light is special, Hanna said, because the sun's angle is lower, and therefore, the light is more saturated. The best times of day are before 10 a.m. and after 3 p.m.

And don't turn your back on stormy days. Developing weather systems produce beautiful and dramatic cloud formations and, if you're lucky, snow on autumn leaves.

— To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com