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In The Country

Maple Madness

Kay Deardorff
Strawberry Hill Nature Preserve

(2/2013) In these cold winter mornings thereís nothing like the smell of fresh pancakes combined with the aroma of sausage and eggs sizzling on the griddle. The only thing to, literally, top this delicacy is the sweet flavor of maple syrup flowing over the stack of pancakes. Wait! I donít mean the generic stuff. Iím referring to PURE, 100% sweetness thatís been taken from the tree and boiled to the perfect consistency. The backyard hobbyist who taps a maple tree; hangs a collection bucket; and sets up his evaporator savors the sweet success of his labors as he treats himself to a breakfast of sugary goodness.

In February and March we will experience warm days and cool nights. This is just right for sap to flow in the maple trees. Warm sunny days, 40+ EF, and cold nights, 20EF, are ideal for sap flow. Sugaring season usually starts in mid-February and may last 4 to 8 weeks, depending on weather conditions. The harvest season ends with the arrival of warm spring nights and early bud development in the trees.

Itís not certain how this process began, but some of the legends are interesting. One story is the Legend of Chief Woksis whose wife learned about it during the "Season of the Melting Snow." She discovered it while preparing venison (deer meat) for the evening meal.

Woksis had thrown his tomahawk into a maple tree the night before and when he removed it, the sap flowed from the tree during the day into a bucket that was setting by the trunk. The chiefís wife needed water to cook the venison and was on her way to collect it from the spring when she spotted the container filled with "tree-water." She tasted it and found it to be slightly sweet. Being a wise and careful woman she knew that using this liquid would save her a trip to get the water and she would not be wasting the liquid. So she cooked the meat in it for supper. Eventually the sap boiled down to syrup. This added a new flavor to the meal and the chief loved it. The Indians had found that they could process the maple sap beyond the syrup stage to become crystallized sugar. The sugar did not spoil when stored.

As the first European settlers arrived, the Indians traded the maple sugar with them. Eventually the Native Americans taught them the process of making what they called "maple water." It became a staple of colonial life and was soon the only sweetener used. This use of maple sugar brought the end of dependence on foreign sugar. Also there was no longer the need for the cane sugar that was gained through the sweat of the southern slave prior to the Civil War. It wasnít until the 1800ís that cane sugar from the Caribbean Islands was introduced to the American diet.

The colonists changed the process of gathering the sap when they realized that slashing into the tree created a lot of waste and caused damage to the plant. Therefore, the use of spouts or spiles tapped into the tree proved to be more successful. When a healthy tree is tapped properly, minimal damage is done and the tree lives to provide the sweet nectar for many years.

Sap was collected in buckets hanging on the tree and then boiled down in what was the first evaporator which was invented in the early 1900ís. This large flat bottomed pan was placed on a fire. It was more effective than the kettles or buckets originally used to cook the syrup.

Every year, Strawberry Hill Nature Preserve, near Fairfield, presents one of the maple sugaring programs that allows participants to have a hands-on experience with all facets of the sugaring process. During this 90-minute program, attendees learn the history of maple sugaring and then are led to the forest where they select a tree; drill into it; hang a sap bucket; collect sap; and watch fresh sap being cooked down into syrup before their eyes. Participants even have a chance to taste the finished product.

Strawberry Hill owns a hobbyist sap evaporator which is a smaller version of the professional version that produces syrup so delicious, so sweet, that you wonít believe itís the same product thatís usually purchased in a grocery store. Your taste buds will rejoice and beg for more of this tasty treat! Strawberry Hill demonstrates the boiling process to school classes, home schools, organized groups, Boy and Girl Scout troops, and the general public.

Growing in popularity are the pancake breakfasts which are hosted by Strawberry Hill and held at Camp Eder, 914 Mount Hope Road, Fairfield on two Saturdays during the maple sugaring season. This year Strawberry Hill Nature Preserve and Camp Eder invite the public to enjoy their combined festivities at Mount Hope Maple Madness! On Saturday, February 23rd and March 2nd the days will start with a pancake breakfast from 7:30 Ė 11:30 am. Diners can enjoy the ambience of music provided by local musicians; then they can go into the adjacent room to view and/or purchase crafts from local vendors.

After filling up on pancakes topped with syrupy goodness, folks can participate in a program to learn the process of taking the sap from the tree to the syrup on the table. While no reservations are necessary for the breakfasts, you will need to call to register for a spot for the maple sugaring program. Public programs will be held at Camp Eder on Saturdays, February 23rd and March 2nd from 9:00 am Ė 3:00 pm and also on Sundays, February 24th and March 3rd from 12:00 Ė 3:00 pm. Call the Strawberry Hill office at 717-642-5840 or email info@strawberryhill.org to make your reservation.

If you are a scout leader, teacher, home school organizer, or someone who wants to bring an organized group to experience this fascinating backyard hobby, you can contact Strawberry Hill or visit the website at www.StrawberryHill.org to join one of our weekday programs held between February 11th and March 8th. Each program is suitable for all ages. Itís educational; itís fun; itís a wholesome family activity; and itís good exercise. After participating in the program, participants will have the knowledge needed to do sugaring in their own in their backyard. There will also be maple syrup for sale as well as maple sap collecting kits. Hope to see you in the "sugarbush;" the forest of maple trees, that is!

Read other articles by Kay Deardorff