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Telling forerunners

In the San Francisco Bay area, we have two kinds of weather. April through November, it's sunny with fog and cool onshore breezes most of the time, unless we get an East offshore breeze, which pushes the temperature up into the 90's. That only happens about 10 days of the year, which we call "Summer."

November through the beginning of April is the rainy season, otherwise known as "Winter." The winter temperature is about 20 degrees cooler, which means days in 60's, night in 40's. W average about three feet of rainfall a year, most of it in storms that drop several inches of rainfall at a time. It will snow on the top of Mount Tamalpais or Mount Diablo or Mount Hamilton, but they all are half a mile high. If it snows any lower than 1000' elevation, it makes front page of the newspapers. Once every couple years this happens.

The rainy season does not kick in until November, but every year in September we get an early cool rainstorm, like the one we've had the last couple days. Doesn't rain a lot usually, but it's more than a summer's night fog drizzle, and it comes on a cool wind that probably originates up in the Gulf of Alaska. When we get this "first breath of fall," the wet soil and leaves give rise to earthy perfume, and the air seems clean and more alive.

There is a sense of excitement in the air as first fall rainstorm arrives. Salmon and steelhead get focused on coming in out of the ocean to spawn. The first rain touches the duck hunter's instincts, too. You find yourself checking decoy anchor lines, doing a little touching up on the paint on the decoys, maybe checking in with hunting buddies about the opener next month, etc.

On cue, some teal always seem to show up at the same time, just to remind you what's around the corner. Some say, the time of the arrival of the teal also has deeper meanings, as the earlier they pass through, the more severe the upcoming winter is supposed to be. Some call such predictions folklore and superstition. Others call them woods wisdom.

The weatherman may try to predict the weather, but they have trouble predicting tomorrow, let alone two weeks or two months from now, regardless of computer models and satellites.

In the backwoods of New England folks forecast the length and severity of the coming winter by telling "Forerunners." Forerunner folks study natural conditions and look for signs to forecast the coming fall and winter weather, and maybe the size of migration of waterfowl or the success in the upcoming deer season. And, in my experience, often they get it right as much as the weatherman does.

One of the best-known forerunners of winter is the wooly bear caterpillar, the larva of the Isabella tiger moth, which has a reddish-brown center band and black bands on both head and tail. According to folklore traditions and the Farmer's Almanac, the larger the central brown band, the shorter the winter. In Banner Elk, North Carolina, and Vermillion, Ohio, there are "Woolly Bear Festivals."

These festivities seem a fitting balance to the 40,000 people who assemble every February 2 in Punxsutawney, PA, on groundhog day, to see whether the groundhog oracle, "Punxsutawney Phil," sees his shadow or not when he emerges from hibernation, and thus forecasting six more weeks of winter, or not.

Over in Irvington, Kentucky, Dick Frymire has been doing winter predictions for years. His forecasting method is measuring the air and soil temperatures on and around a maple tree to make predictions about snow, cold, weather, and the length of winter. A lot of folks swear by his prognostications.

Another way to predict the severity of the coming winter is when honeybees store a lot of honey in their hives, and yellowjackets build their nests high in the trees.

In Colorado, one indication of a coming cold, long winter, some say, is when the summertime locusts sing in the early morning, rather than in the mid-day heat.

Other indications of a coming long winter are: fur coats on animals seem to be thicker than normal; heavy fogs in August; or years when dogwood tree berries, acorns and apples are especially abundant. Up in Alaska, the Kutchin Indians say that you can tell how sever the winter is going to be by the distance from their entrance that black bears bed down when they go into hibernation.

If you ask scientists about making predictions about winter based on animal behavior, they tend to dismiss it. Entomologists say that the size of the center band in a woolly bear is an indication of their age. Woolly bears survive overwinter, and they shed during this time. The older they are, the larger the reddish-brown center band, according to science. So there's no truth to the forerunners, they assert.

Actually, if woolly bears get browner as the winter season goes on, and you see them out later, when they have larger brown bands, it probably does mean that the weather, at least to date, has not been that cold, so the winter is probably going to be shorter.

Not to debunk all science, as I do have a Ph.D., but my point is that some folklore methods and beliefs have a grain of truth behind them.

Science likes to explain everything in theories based on results from controlled methodologies that are measured in mathematics. Anyone who has spent much time in the outdoors knows only too well that nature's moods are always changing and not always predictable by rational methods. Animals live closer to their intuitive instincts than most people. Folks who are skilled at telling forerunners live close to nature, allowing their intuitions and knowledge of wildlife and nature to enable them to see patterns and sense things. Intuition is what man and animals use to forecast the future, as well as guide them to be at certain places at certain times. Sometimes your gut is as accurate or better than all the scientific instruments in the world.

So, if you want to rely on what meteorologists are forecasting for the coming winter, fine by me. Personally, I think forecasting the winter by the date of the arrival of the bluewing teal, the thickness of the coat on an 8-point buck, or the number of acorns on an oak tree in the fall, is more fun. And life's more fun with a little magic and mystery.

Write down your predictions of what you think winter will be like this year. See if you have the gift.

And by the way, I think at least in these parts we're in for a wet winter. The first rain we just had dropped almost an inch, which is a lot for a September rain, and that' supposed to mean we're in for a soaker this winter. At least that's what they are saying around the woodstove at the local sportsmen's club.

James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.