Sweet and sappy: The joy of in-person maple-syrup events are back and it’s been a good year so far
The weather has been good to outstanding (mostly) so far for maple sap, perfect timing for in-person maple-syrup events, the joy of those sweet, smart and sappy times.
When naturalist Jerry Attere asked where maple syrup came from, a kid quickly answered, “The store.”
Oh, the joy of maple-syrup events being back.
My wife and I attended the early “Sap’s Rising” at River Trail Nature Center in Northbrook. On a near-70-degree day, the Forest Preserves of Cook County added two more “Sap’s Rising” events to make four that day. Families lined up.
That kid had insight embedded in his quick wit.
“When I started at River Trail as a volunteer in 1991, we were doing a lot more than this event,” said naturalist Michele Mottlowitz, River Trail director, beforehand. “I lived and breathed the maple syrup. I am happy to give my money to the sugar producers to Vermont, Michigan and Quebec. It is time consuming and expensive.”
One year, I tapped our backyard maple. Reality hit real quick.
“What did you end up with, a quarter cup?” Mottlowitz asked.
Not even that. But, it was delicious. I used it in tea.
Making maple syrup takes more time than I will give. But the process fits being tuned to the natural world.
“For me, this time of sugaring, this time of the year, is so special and amazing,” Mottlowitz said. “What am I hearing? Pileated woodpeckers, migrating birds . . . The joy of the early spring/late winter experience is the hope of spring.”
Sap starts rising as spring shuffles in. We have had near-perfect weather for sap rising: nights below freezing and days 40-50.
“The changes create the pressure that allow the sap to start moving,” Mottlowitz said. “Obviously the sap, the water, has to be melted enough.”
That’s generally the second-third week of February to second-third week of March, sometimes as early as January.
Sugar maples are the No. 1 tree to tap because their sugar percentage is about 2 1/2-3 percent.
To tap, trees should be healthy. So I asked about urban trees.
“I want to be clear that any trees in an urban area are under more stress, not as capable to reach favorable conditions,” Mottlowitz said.
There’s injuries, soil compaction, shading, drought and artificial light.
“Not that it can’t be done, we hear of people doing it,” Mottlowitz said. “But there are more stresses to those trees.”
Tapping is only allowed on your property or private property with permission.
Attere went through the process/stuff: Native American birch containers, maple-syrup jar, caliper, drilling, spiles and buckets.
The caliper measures tree diameter.
To tap, trees must be 10 inches thick. It’s one tap for those 10-17 inches thick; two taps for 18-24; and three for 24 and thicker.
Properly tapped trees may be good for 100 years.
Attere told us River Trail had the largest sugar maple stand in the Forest Preserves, which include nearly 70,000 acres.
“There are several reasons why sugar maples are preferred,” Mottlowitz said. “They grow in low spots and there’s lots of water. Their buds don’t open as early.”
When buds open, sap becomes less sweet.
Attere concluded his talk over the evaporator in the sugar shack.
For maple syrup, sap must be reduced to 66-68 percent sugar, about 40 gallons of sap for a gallon of syrup.
Afterward, my wife and another woman talked recipes. I kept from blurting, “It was time.” (A little sugar goes a long way.)
Maple syrup holds my heart. Fifteen years ago, I had the three youngest at Plum Creek Nature Center for an event. We were the only family to brave the cold and snow. A Daily Southtown photographer took a photo, which she later emailed. It’s still my favorite family shot.
Call me sappy.
FPCC holds a multi-leveled Maple Syrup Festival on March 20 at River Trail Nature Center.