Maple Madness explores history of maple sugaring
PENN TWP — Participants walked down a muddy trail and into the history of maple sugaring Saturday, March 25, at the 12th annual Maple Madness event at Succop Nature Park, 185 W. Airport Road.
At four stations in the woods and grounds of the park, visitors learned how people have used maple sap and syrup through the ages, from Native Americans to today’s modern evaporator tables.
Volunteers at each station explained the methods and tools used to collect the sweet treat from trees and to the breakfast table.
“This is a walk-through the history of maple sugaring,” said Karen Stein, director of the Butler County centers of the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania.
Guides led groups every half-hour through the four stations.
At the first station, Nelson Milano, the watershed coordinator for the society, in his interpretation of practices in the 1600s, pointed out how beginning in February, Native Americans collected sap by making slashes on maple tree trunks with stone axes, allowing the sap to seep out and down twigs inserted in the slashes to be collected in birch bark buckets in a time- and labor-intensive process.
The buckets were left outside to allow the water to freeze. The ice was scraped off and the sap transferred to wooden troughs where more water was boiled off by dropping hot stones into the troughs. The process was repeated until the sap became maple sugar.
“The sugar was transported in pottery, maple sugar not syrup, because it was more efficient,” Milano said. The rock-hard disks were used to season food or as trade items with more southern tribes that couldn’t make the sugar because of higher temperatures.
“The slashes often killed the trees,” Milano said. “But there were so few people extracting syrup, this was not a big impact.”
At the second station, Boy Scouts Wyatt Broaded and Finn Thornton of Troop 65 in Mount Lebanon, demonstrated how the iron tools of the early colonists made sap collecting an easier but still arduous chore.
An iron drill was used to make a hole in the trunk of the maple then a wooden spile, or a spout, was inserted into the tree to draw off the sap into a bucket.
Colonists used yokes to carry full buckets of sap to iron kettles where the sap was boiled to evaporate the water. The colonists had permanent sugaring camps with perpetual fires during sugaring season.
At the third station, volunteer Tanya Broaded, Wyatt’s mother, demonstrated how modern sugaring techniques used plastic tubing and plastic splices to link several maple trees together to extract the sap.
The sap is collected in 55-gallon plastic drums. Tanya Broaded said 55 gallons of sap is needed to make 1 gallon of syrup.
Each tree tapped can produce between five and 15 gallons of sap during a sugaring season that lasts from mid-February to April.
“A freeze-thaw cycle is important,” she said. “Days reaching 40 degrees and nights below freezing create the pressure to get the sap running. The season is done when the trees begin to flower because this changes the taste of the sap.”
At the final station, volunteer Robert Burns demonstrated a modern evaporator table used to turn sap into syrup. Today’s evaporator tables can range in size from the model he was demonstrating to tractor-trailer sized models that are driven to sugaring camps.
To be legally considered syrup, Burns said it must consist of 66% sugar, which comes about when 98% of the water is boiled off. Evaporator tables still use wood fires, he said, because “It is still the cheapest way. Sugaring camps are in the woods with plenty of dead trees.”
After the sap is boiled down to its final concentration on the evaporator table, it is taken to a sugar shack for the final cook-off, said Burns to get it to the final 66% of sugar to be classified as syrup.
“Maple syrup is very much like wines. You can tell what region the syrup is from,” Burns said.
He added, you can drink the sap straight from the tree.
“It will be mildly sweet filtered by the tree roots, crystal pure water,” Burns said.
Ryan Stauffer, Succop Nature Park educator, said there were about 65 mature maples among the 98 species of trees in the 50-acre park.
Sugar and red maples provide the best sap for making syrup, Stauffer said.
“We tap the trees every year,” he said. “We cook some of the syrup here, but we don’t sell maple products.”
The maple syrup and maple candy available for purchase in the park’s Nature Store comes from an outside supplier because state certification regulations.
Greg and Bethann Carlson, of Mars, said the Maple Madness tour was fun and instructive.
“We thought it would be fun to see what maple syrup looks like and how we get it,” Greg Carlson said.
Bethann Carlson said she’s been interested in the process since she read aloud a children’s book, “A Place for Peter,” to her children.
“It’s about a boy that is charge of the sugar shack,” she said.