Looking for the best time to chase fall colors? Call Polly's Pancake Parlor
It’s the first week of fall, which means peak leaf peeping season is approaching.
And at least one restaurant on the outskirts of the Upper Valley will be paying close attention.
Since 1975, staff at Polly’s Pancake Parlor in Sugar Hill, New Hampshire, has been tracking when the leaves peak, when they fade and when the season’s first snowfall arrives.
It’s a tradition that customers have come to rely on when planning their fall foliage watching.
But the autumn pastime could be at risk as climate change contributes to duller leaves that sometimes stick around longer.
To learn more about the restaurant’s leaf tracking and what kind of seasons she’s observed over the last couple years, Vermont Public's Mary Williams Engisch spoke to restaurant owner Kathie Aldrich Côté. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Williams Engisch: Well first, if we've never been, can you take us by the hand and walk us inside Polly's Pancake Parlor? What are we seeing and smelling and hearing?
Kathie Aldrich Côté: Oh my goodness. Well, Polly's started in 1938 as a "quaint tea room" to highlight all the different maple products that my grandparents made here on the farm. You know, you'll walk into Polly's and even though it's in a new building as of 2016, we've tried to retain the feeling and the atmosphere of the old quaint tea shed that we had there before. So there's still the same antiques on the wall that actually all came from the farm. Of course the pervasive smell of pancakes and smoked bacon — especially the smoked bacon.
You're the third generation to run the restaurant and your mom, Nancy, started tracking foliage and foliage changes almost 50 years ago. How did that tradition get started? And what did it look like initially?
You know, it's funny, because it still looks like it did when she started it. So if you could see it, you would laugh, but it's a clipboard with graph paper on it. And it mostly started as attendance records, to see how many people we did every day. And it's broken down by the hour in the morning, and then the afternoon. And, as a side note to that, she kept track of the weather. So if you had a, you know, glorious, beautiful day, or if it was stormy, or if the power went out. And then somewhere along the line, she started tracking the leaves, because customers would call and say, "Well, how are the leaves? We're planning our annual fall foliage trip and we want to, we want to hit it just right!" So she started keeping track of this.
And for the most part, you can kind of see a generalized pattern of when the height of the colors happens. That part of it has not really changed too much, although it has gotten a little later in the last couple of years. What's interesting to me is, when you start seeing those trees have been starting to turn — that has definitely gotten earlier over the years. In 1975, when she first started doing this, she first recorded that the leaves are changing around the beginning of September, Sept. 5. The last few years — well, last year was really early. I saw some leaves starting to change around Aug. 9. This year, we've recorded Aug. 19, so a little bit later this year, but still dramatically earlier than it had been when we started this 50 years ago.
Why do you think you have kept it going after all this time? Is it is it solely for customers?
You know, customers still do ask us. I've noticed now with the internet and more foliage tracker sites on Facebook and other platforms like that, I've noticed less of phone calls. And it's kind of tradition also. It's kind of neat for us to look back.
Can you explain how important foliage chasing is in your region, both for locals and for tourists?
Yeah, it is our busiest time of the year — our most intense time. And I really try to encourage customers who want to avoid the crowds and the long waits to try to come starting next week. But they all come around that holiday week period, because in their mind, if the leaves are changing in Boston, they must be changing up in the White Mountains, right? Not realizing that they might be all gone by then.
But it's a real big push for all the businesses. I mean, it's that last push before you tuck into what we call "stick season." And it's kind of long for the coffers, but kind of rejuvenating for the soul. And the peace and quiet that we get once stick season hits.
Scientists are telling us that that droughts, heat waves, are becoming more common in New England with climate change. Those can cause leaves to turn brown and to whither before even hitting peak color.
If we do see bigger and bigger disruptions to foliage changing, moving onward, how would that affect your business and the others in the area?
It would be a detrimental effect to all of us. And it goes hand in hand with my other big part of my business —relying on pure maple syrup. So both of those would be just devastating. We all rely on big bus groups coming through here and hordes of tourists coming through. It would be terrible.
What kind of leaf-peeping season can you predict from what you're seeing so far this year?
Especially with the rain we've had the past three days, there's been some overnight changes — just some really beautiful, vibrant colors coming out. So it's hard to say up in our area of the Upper Valley. We've had a little bit more rain than they've had in southern New Hampshire, so I think we're going to be okay. But it's tough to say. And like I said, it can change overnight.