COLUMN: Signs of the season

It is difficult to imagine this little guy as a weather forecaster, but he does have an uncanny accuracy, more so than the weather service.

Late summer into early fall is a great time to be in the north woods. Anyone who has ever visited northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, or the Canadian Provinces to the north knows exactly of what I speak. I spent a number of my childhood years in the north, before my grandparents made the trek to Colorado.

One particular morning, we were heading out on the lake to try some late season walleye fishing. The air was crisp and clear, blowing in from the northwest. Small whitecaps were slapping at the side of our aluminum vessel as we ventured on. The spot my grandfather chose to fish was only 100 feet from the shoreline.

I remember staring at the hardwood trees along that shoreline because they were just beginning to turn color, signaling the coming of fall and the color explosion that the north is known for. Along the shore was a line of 3-feet high weeds with a bright red flower on their tops.

My grandfather said they were fireweed. He went on to explain that the fireweed showing the red flowers was a sign that winter was 10 weeks away. I never forgot that bit of old country weather lore and the old man who truly believed it.

Knowing what weather to expect was and is vitally important to farmers, ranchers, and to outdoor people who venture off the beaten path. Farmers can’t cut hay if they won’t have a couple of days for it to dry and you don’t want to plant your corn just before a week-long flooding rain.

There has been a National Weather Service in the United States since 1870. My grandfather did not have any confidence in them back in his day, and I have very little faith in their predictions now. After spending many years in the crosshairs of hurricanes, I have learned you are better off to roll the dice rather than listen to the experts.

I realize there are all sorts of factors that influence weather, such as changing pressure systems and mountains, but c’mon folks. The law of averages should give them a 50/50 shot, right?

Weather lore is what the old-timers believed in and many still do. There is some scientific fact to back up their claims. Take for example the old saying, “Mare’s tails and mackerel scales make tall ships carry low sails.”

This is true because mackerel scales are cirrocumulus clouds that are being influenced by shifting wind directions and high speeds and are typical of an advancing low-pressure system. High cirrus clouds that have been shaped by upper winds cause mare’s tails. Cirrus clouds can signal an approaching front.

Many of these old time predictions exist in an attempt to predict the harshness or mildness of an upcoming winter. In merry old England, they believe that winter blooms mean death. Flowers that normally in the summer were viewed as bad omens when they bloomed in the winter.

Trees that break into an unseasonable bloom meant that a hard winter with much sickness and death was at hand. These days, late season blooming flowers and trees are most likely a product of climate change, and with that thought, the old omen holds some truth.

We have all heard about squirrels and their nest building giving us a clue as to the severity of the upcoming winter. It is also thought that squirrels gathering nuts early indicated an early and harsh winter. Problem with that omen is that I have never been able to locate a squirrel nest when I needed a forecast, and all the squirrels I see are gathering nuts the year round.

For us locally, many believe that the wetness and severity of our monsoon season will determine the amount of snow we will have over the winter months. Wetter fall is supposed to mean a wetter winter. I have seen it go both ways over the past couple decades here. We have had a wet fall and a bone-dry winter and a wet fall and a very snowy winter, so I don’t put much faith in that one.

The Farmers Almanac is full of signs of nature that can predict a harsh winter ahead. When the farmers report a thicker than normal onion or cornhusks, it is a sign of a cold and harsh winter.

Another is the size of the orange band on the woollybear caterpillar. According to folklore, if the caterpillar’s orange band is narrow, the winter will be snowy. A wide orange band means a mild winter. Fuzzier-than–normal woollybear caterpillars are said to mean that the upcoming winter will be very cold.

A good friend of mine relayed an omen to me that he learned from his grandmother. “The date of the month that you have the first snow, one that is deep enough to track a rabbit, indicates how many snows over the winter you will have that are deep enough to track a rabbit.”

I reasoned that to mean that if we got a tracking snow on Nov. 18, we would have 18 tracking snows over the course of the winter. I tried testing this one out one year when it snowed on Nov. 26. That year we had a bunch of little snowstorms, an inch or two, and I lost count because I was too busy shoveling snow.

I really have no idea what to expect this upcoming winter. We don’t have any fireweed around here to look at and I can’t find a squirrel anywhere. I hope we get enough moisture that we can forget the whole drought thing for next year. C’mon squirrels, get busy building them nests.

Mark Rackay is a columnist for the Montrose Daily Press and avid hunter who travels across North and South America in search of adventure and serves as a director for the Montrose County Sheriff’s Posse. For information about the posse call 970-252-4033 (leave a message) or email

For outdoors or survival related questions or comments, feel free to contact him directly at his email

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