Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Lessons in gathering sap & making maple syrup on a summery day March 19, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 2:53 PM
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THE GATHERING OF MAPLE SAP at River Bend Nature Center in Faribault looked nothing like this on Sunday. Obviously, harvesting methods have changed since this vintage photo was taken. But so has the weather.

A copy of an historic photo displayed inside a teepee at River Bend Nature Center showed how sap was once harvested. Typically, there's still snow on the ground during the sap run.

Nature Center visitors (many clad in capris/shorts, t-shirts, flip flops and sandals) gathered to learn about making maple syrup on an unseasonably warm and snow-free afternoon more like June than March. This isn’t exactly sap-flowing weather with record day-time high temperatures near 80 and overnight temps well above freezing. Night-time temps need to dip below freezing for best sap yields.

Yet, the glum prospects for a bountiful sap harvest didn’t stop Nature Center volunteers and staff from leading visitors into the woods for a hands-on lesson in tapping trees.

I busied myself taking photos while volunteer Diane walked us through the steps of selecting and tapping a tree. My husband and I passed on the opportunity to participate, instead allowing brothers Alex and Aaron and their mom, Betsy, from south Minneapolis to step up and get the sap flowing.

Alex took his turn drilling a hole into the maple tree.

Almost immediately after the drill bit was pulled from the hole, the clear sap started running from the spile.

Volunteer Diane checks placement of the bag, usually three per tree, hung to collect sap. About 40 gallons of raw sap produce one gallon of syrup.

Besides the actual tapping process, we learned that sap runs up the tree, not down. I suppose that makes sense now that I think about it.

Later, after we’d tapped our tree and set the collection bag in place, we wandered over to the evaporator where staffer Elaine told us about boiling the water off the sap.

Nature Center staffer Elaine shows visitors four syrup samples and asks which would be sweeter. Typically the lighter-colored one. She also explained the process of boiling away the water in the wood-fired evaporator. Summer attire was the dress code of the day for most, with only a few exceptions.

For any would-be maple syrup makers, here’s the tip of the day from Elaine: “Do not do this in your kitchen. All the steam is sticky.” A good tip for those of us, too, who are photographers and like to get close to the action.

Before we headed over to the final station and a lesson in how Native Americans harvested and processed sap, we sampled homemade maple syrup. It was much thicker, darker and sweeter than the near colorless, runnier maple syrup I tasted last year at the farm of a Faribault area syrup maker. The sap’s sugar content and the cooking process can all affect the end product. I’d choose real maple syrup any day over imitation.

Samples of homemade maple syrup. Pure, delightful sweetness.

Inside the teepee, copies of vintage photos and books on maple syrup were available for visitors to peruse.

Over at the final station, near a teepee set up in the woods, we learned that Native Americans used hollowed-out elderberry sticks as spiles (spigots) and collected sap in waterproof birch baskets.

Much more information was shared. But since I was photographing scenes, I wasn’t taking notes. I figure if you really want to know the ins and outs of making maple syrup, you can research that yourself or attend a hands-on event.

If you want to sample River Bend’s homemade maple syrup, plan to attend the annual Pancake Brunch from 10:30 a.m. – 1 p.m. on Sunday, April 29. The event also includes an early morning Maple Syrup Fun Run (5K run and 1M walk). The top male and female adult and youth runners will each receive a bottle of River Bend maple syrup. Now how’s that for a sweet prize?

CLICK HERE for more information about the Maple Syrup Fun Run and Pancake Brunch.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling