Ask Levi: What are good subjects for a fall hike with children?

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Autumn leaves turn red and gold along a rural backroad in Mercer County. (Photo courtesy Rick Burgess)

Dear Levi: We’d like to take our grandchildren on an autumn leaf hike. What are some points we can make about the fall leaf change in West Virginia?

There are so many things I could say about the autumn leaf change, and it’s difficult to focus on specific ones for fear of leaving others out, but here are three on which I focus while I’m on the trail.

Autumn arrives in the Allegheny Mountains (Photo: Ed Rehbein)

1. Autumn is a great time for me to brush up on tree identification, and, of course, it’s a good time to talk to children about the science behind the change of seasons.

As the days become shorter and the nights grow longer, the temperature slowly drops. Autumn comes and then winter. Trees respond to the decreasing amount of sunlight by producing less and less chlorophyll.

Eventually, a tree stops producing chlorophyll. When that happens, the carotenoid already in the leaves shows through. Leaf color comes from pigments that are produced by leaf cells. The three pigments that color leaves are anthocyanin (red), chlorophyll (green), and carotenoid (yellow, orange, and brown).

Carotenoids create bright yellows and oranges in familiar fruits and vegetables. Corn, carrots, and bananas are a few of many plants colored by carotenoid. Bright yellow or orange leaves will most likely be hickories, ash, maple, yellow poplar, aspen, birch, black cherry, sycamore, cottonwood, sassafras, and alder.

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Anthocyanins add the color red to plants, including apples, cherries, strawberries, and cranberries. Vivid reds will most likely be maples, oaks, sourwood, sweetgums, dogwoods, tupelos, cherry trees, and persimmons.

Chlorophyll is the most important of the pigments. Without chlorophyll, trees wouldn’t be able to use sunlight to produce food. As chlorophyll dissipates, the yellow or orange pigments appear. Most anthocyanins are produced only in autumn and only under certain conditions. Not all trees can make anthocyanin.

2. A second thing on which I like to focus is wildlife. As the days grow short and temperatures cold, most animals respond by migrating to warmer climates or by gathering food and establishing dens and burrows for the winter.

White-tailed deer in a West Virginia meadow. (Photo: Steve Shaluta)

There’s a flurry of activity in autumn, and with it, an increase in what one can see on the trails. I keep my eyes open so that I don’t miss anything!

Some animals, such as birds and butterflies, fly south to a warmer place. Mice, beaver, squirrels, and chipmunks stock up on food during the fall, collecting nuts and leaves to store and eat later.

Animals that remain may live inside trees, under rocks, or underground during the winter and may begin to burrow. Many mammals, such as bears, skunks, and chipmunks, prepare to hibernate.

Deer are among the animals that develop a winter coat that keeps them warm through winter, during which they continue to browse on twigs, stems, and grasses. During fall, however, they tend to move into more densely forested areas to seek cover from predators.

Farm on Dutch Ridge, Kanawha County (Photo: David Sibray)

3. This time of year reminds me that everything has its season, and I often talk about that when I hike with children. You might bring to the attention of your grandkids the principle that everything in Nature changes—that things die and that it’s natural, necessary even, for everything to come to an end and be used to give new life come spring. Endings are okay, and beginnings are, too.

Just remember to respect all the critters you see out on your adventures, and give them the room they need to carry on with their business while keeping you and your family safe as well.

Walk Far. Walk Free. Walk Often.

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