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.

SHARE Sweet and sappy: The joy of in-person maple-syrup events are back and it’s been a good year so far
Naturalist Jerry Attere beginning to tap a mature sugar maple at River Trail Nature Center in Northbrook. Credit: Dale Bowman

Naturalist Jerry Attere beginning to tap a mature sugar maple at River Trail Nature Center in Northbrook.

Dale Bowman

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.

Naturalist Jerry Attere demonstrates a birch container, the kind used by Native Americans for collecting maple sap, at River Trail Nature Center in Northbrook. Credit: Dale Bowman

Naturalist Jerry Attere demonstrates a birch container, the kind used by Native Americans for collecting maple sap, at River Trail Nature Center in Northbrook.

Dale Bowman

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.

A drop of maple sap about to fall from a spile, which was just inserted in a mature sugar maple at River Trail Nature Center in Northbrook. Credit: Dale Bowman

A drop of maple sap about to fall from a spile, which was just inserted in a mature sugar maple at River Trail Nature Center in Northbrook.

Dale Bowman

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.

A fond family memory: Dale Bowman with his three youngest three kids at a maple syrup event at Plum Creek Nature Center in 2007. Provided photo

A fond family memory: Dale Bowman with his three youngest three kids at a maple syrup event at Plum Creek Nature Center in 2007.

Provided

The Latest
La artista mexicana Gabriela Muñoz debuta en Chicago con su espectáculo unipersonal ‘Perhaps, Perhaps… Quizás’, que presenta en el Physical Theater Festival.
“Pueden elegir a la persona que ha dado la cara por la gente de este país, invirtiendo en ciudades de todo Estados Unidos, o elegir a la persona que no cree en la democracia”, dijo Johnson.
John Vélez tenía sólo 17 años cuando fue declarado culpable del asesinato de Anthony Hueneca en Pilsen en marzo de 2001. Vélez pasó 16 años en prisión antes de que se anulara la condena debido a que un testigo admitió que en realidad no había visto el tiroteo.
Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th) called out what he sees as a double standard in clearing the site in time for the DNC: “I didn’t think we would go from ‘Bring Chicago Home’ to ‘Hide Chicago’s Homeless,’ but here we are.”
“Where has the time gone?” Dawson said this week in a phone call with the Sun-Times.