I just saw the last day of summer. I know what you’re thinking: it’s the Equinox – so didn’t we all just see it? That’s true, but if you work outdoors like I do, you don’t need a calendar to tell you when the seasons change. You just have to read the signs.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve observed the slow transition of the forest underbrush from abundant green to rustling, crunchy brown. I’ve seen the first splashes of yellow appear on a the scattered Aspens and Cottonwoods along the Snake River in Grand Teton National Park. And I’m waiting for the snow line to appear on the high peaks, and slowly descend to the valley floor with each new storm.
I’ve noticed the disappearance of the neighborhood’s Uinta ground squirrels; their mid-August vanishing act always catches me by a surprise. The annual elk rut has commenced – and many human visitors to Grand Teton and Yellowstone find themselves participating in this bewildering dance. Hunters start replacing mountain bikers and hikers in the backcountry, and the pace of life in the town of Jackson slows down.
All of these signs mark the changing season, but I’ve got an old woodsman’s trick to help me pinpoint the exact moment when summer gives way to fall. A native plant found in abundance in the Park – usually in areas that are recovering from fire or disturbance – is Fireweed. This plant is easy to identify by a bright magenta spike of blooms at the top of a five-foot stem. The spike is about six inches tall, and may have as many as 50 flowers, which bloom in sequence from bottom to top throughout the season.
When the first Fireweed blossoms appear, the countdown begins, and I start measuring summer in inches. In early June, there’s not a blossom to be found, and it feels like six inches of summer might last forever. By mid July, Fireweed blossoms have crept halfway up the spikes and painted the wooded slopes of Blacktail Butte with purple. Just three inches left! And today, I found a Fireweed with one last flower blooming all by itself on the tip of the spike, which can only mean one thing: summer is over. Of course, if I missed that singular bloom, Autumn has arrived anyway…but just saying!