The sweet trapping of tapping Maples: As the sap begins to flow, volunteers at nature center get ready to show visitors how trees ooze the stuff of syrup.


February 20, 1997|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,SUN STAFF

The people gather in a small group, holding drills in one hand and bits in the other. The men and women of various ages are dressed to brave the cold in thick, weather-resistant jackets, waterproof hiking boots, hats and scarves. They are prepared for the work they are about to do.

Everyone is in a good mood, because they are all here willingly. They are about to go maple-sugaring.

We are approaching maple-sugaring season in Maryland, and there are a number of events in the area that will let you experience the harvest that leads to syrup.

The people ready to embark outdoors with the necessary instruments in tow are volunteers and a staff member with the Irvine Natural Science Center in Stevenson.

They have gone through an intensive two-day training session to learn about the process. They have to be at least a little proficient in maple-sugaring, because soon they will lead tour groups of very inquisitive children as part of the center's maple-sugaring program.

Malcolm Gee, 69, has been volunteering his time for the Irvine Science Center's maple-sugaring program for three years, so he is an old hand at the process and even helps the neophytes in the group with their bits and drills.

"I enjoy working with kids and I enjoy the outdoors," says the retired chemist, who lives in the Forest Park area of the city.

Erin Wisnieski is on the staff of the Irvine Science Center and is leading the group this cold but -- thankfully -- sunny and dry February morning.

"We will only tap a small number of trees," she tells the group. "We are not really into production but into demonstration."

The children who take the tour will learn how to identify maple trees, which lose their leaves in the fall. Staff members at the center provide teachers with a brochure, a sort of mini-lesson on maple sugaring. The brochure helps teachers prepare their students by explaining such facts as how to find a maple in the middle of winter.

"During the winter, the best way to identify a sugar maple is by its twigs and buds. Maples have smooth buds," according to the brochure.

And not all maple trees produce equal amounts of syrup, Wisnieski says.

"You will learn that some of our trees do better than others," she tells the group.

The volunteers are ready to begin the "maple walk" and head outdoors and over a few hills. "Take a look at the bud and see if you can tell me what kind it is," Wisnieski coaches the group as she points out a tree.

Everyone passes the "test" by identifying the tree as a red maple.

"Let's see if we can find where it was tapped before, because we don't want to tap in the same place," she says. Tapping a tree does not harm it, although it is good not to "overtap" one.

Wisnieski continues by offering advice to the volunteers on the correct way to tap the tree. "Tap at an upward angle so it will flow out," she explains. "Not too hard. You don't want to split the tree."

A spile, which is a spigot used to take sap from a tree, is inserted. Then a container is hooked underneath to catch the liquid that comes out.

The best type of weather for maple-sugaring is a cold, frosty night followed by some days of temperatures above freezing, Wisnieski explains.

And if there are tiny round holes in the trunk of a tree, they were most likely made by a particular bird -- the yellow-bellied sapsucker.

"I like to tickle kids with the knowledge that there really is a yellow-bellied sapsucker. They think that is a made-up name," says 69-year-old Frank Treuchet, who has volunteered at the center for more than 10 years.

The birds really do enjoy sucking the sap from maple trees, he tells the children. And they also seem to know where the best trees are, Wisnieski says.

The children, some of whom may get to taste a tiny drop of the syrup if it gets on their fingertips, probably will not like it. Maple syrup direct from a tree tastes mostly like water -- because it is mostly water.

Sap from an average maple is about 97 percent water, with the rest being sugar. Excess water must be boiled away to get the syrup.

Tips on tapping

Interesting facts about maple sugaring from the Irvine Natural Science Center's booklet:

For an average season, one hole tapped in a tree yields one quart of syrup. If you want a half-cup of syrup for your pancakes, you will need to collect about 1.5 gallons of sap.

From late winter to early spring is usually the only time when the weather is right for tapping trees. A combination of warm days and cool nights makes the sap run but keeps the buds from opening. Once the buds open and the tree starts leafing out, the sap is no longer sweet.

The sugar found in sap is food that the tree uses for its new spring growth. The trunk of a tree should be at least 12 inches in diameter (3 feet in circumference) for good tapping. Larger trees can take more taps: one for each additional 6 inches in diameter. Three taps is the suggested maximum for any tree.

Sweet spots

A sampling of maple sugaring demonstrations and events:

Oregon Ridge Nature Center

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