The Mendenhall Glacier. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire File)

The Mendenhall Glacier. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire File)

How do you know when it’s fall?

According to the Gregorian calendar, the first day of fall this year is Monday, Sept. 23. Why it’s not the 21st like it was when I was a child, I don’t know. I guess the rules are different in the 21st century. At any rate, we’ve got almost a month left of summer. So why does it look like fall already? In reality, fall comes much sooner to the boreal rainforest of Juneau. How can you tell when it’s fall?

— The woolly bears are out. These black and gold fuzzy caterpillars are strutting the sidewalks of Southeast Alaska. If you walk past Thunder Mountain High School to the pedestrian bridge across the river, you’ll encounter a veritable woolly bear explosion.

Tragically, half of the caterpillars on the sidewalk are squished, making it a woolly bear graveyard to rival any Halloween display. But there are still tons of living woolly bears, crawling busily in all directions.

Look, but don’t touch. According to the school nurse, you shouldn’t pick them up, not just because they are creepy crawlies, but because they can sting you. Personally, I love it that the woolly bears sport the colors of the Pittsburgh Steelers, just in time for football season to begin. I guess it’s fall.

— The leaves are turning. Yes, even in Juneau with its preponderance of evergreen trees, you can still see fall colors. At this moment, stretches of the East Glacier trail are carpeted with brown and yellow leaves for the woolly bears to crawl on.

The maples by Safeway are starting to glow. It’s only a matter of time before the road to the glacier will be lined with golden aspens. Don’t blink, or you’ll miss it!

— The school supplies are on sale. I’m a sucker for school supplies. I’ll go out of my way in the store just to look at the packages of colored pencils in all the shades of the rainbow and beyond. I love the feel of a ream of paper as you fan it with your thumb.

The smell of crayons takes me back to the coloring days of my youth, when the hardest thing I had to cope with was staying within the lines. Now all these wondrous things are on sale, and I just can’t help myself. My desk becomes the Barnhill store for the next year, where the kids can go for an endless supply of notebooks and folders in all colors.

— The kids are getting up in the morning. No more sleeping until noon. It’s a rude awakening, on a par with the jet lag one would experience after traveling to the east coast.

The first day of school is always the worst, but the kids manage to roll out of bed because they’re excited about getting back to school to see their friends and tease them about their new haircuts.

Then the second day is even worse, because the excitement has worn off, but the kids are not quite over their jet lag. At least it’s light out when they’re trying to get up.

— The fireweed has gone to seed. There’s no stopping those blossoms on their inexorable march to the top of the stalks. When the fluff starts to fly, we’ll have six weeks until the first snow. Count on it.

— Crowds are overtaking the glacier. It’s the perfect opportunity to watch the domino effect in action. The salmon are running, converging on the streams at the glacier to spawn and die.

The bears are following the salmon, lurking on the banks of the stream to pounce on a hapless fish for a tasty treat. The tourists are flocking to the boardwalks to see the bears, lulled into complacency by the railing to think that they’re in a controlled environment, like a zoo.

The rangers are shepherding the tourists, keeping them quiet and respectful in the bears’ habitat. And the locals are slinking away, not wanting to harass the cub at the top of a tree or face the wrath of his mama down below. At least the bears are fat and happy in the fall.

— If all else fails, there’s a foolproof indicator for the arrival of fall. Rain. Need I say more?


• Peggy McKee Barnhill is a wife, mother, and author who writes cozy mysteries under the pen name “Greta McKennan.” She likes to look at the bright side of life.


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