BELOIT—As Andy Tuszynski trudged out to the Welty Enviromental Center’s sugarbush—a stand of sugar maple trees in the expanse of Beloit’s Big Hill Park that surrounds the environmental center—he mused that what he was about to try probably wouldn’t work.
A Gazette reporter who’d never tasted real maple syrup sap in the wild had persuaded Tuszynski to give it a shot anyway. Reluctantly, Tuszynski hunted through the snow in a grove of bare trees, looking for the tell-tale signs of a sugar maple: vertical bark ridges and nubby twigs poking out of opposite sides of each branch.
Tuszynski, who is Welty Environmental Center’s environmental educator, spotted a mature sugar maple. He produced a hand drive from his white drywall bucket and bored an inch-deep hole in the tree’s trunk before working a metal spigot (its technical name is a spile) into the hole.
And … nothing came out. No maple sap. No nothing. Not a drop or a drip.
The wind hissed through the trees like the sigh of an annoyed, old woodsman.
“As I expected, it’s still too cold for sap,” Tuszynski said. “You’ll have to wait a few weeks, at least.”
The temperature had been climbing from the low teens into the mid-20s for a few days, but that’s not quite warm enough to induce the park’s maple trees to begin circulating their sap up and down their trunks, Tuszynski said.
Welty Environmental Center officials aren’t counting on the nearby sugar maple trees to start spitting sap in time for the annual Maple Sugar Fest this Saturday. The center has ordered enough locally-sourced maple syrup to top the pancakes and sausage it will serve for breakfast at the annual festival.
Whether trees on the grounds are producing sap in the coming days, Maple Sugar Fest has contingency plans in place to show off tree tapping and sap-boiling demos for people to learn the finer points of maple syrup making.
“Even if the weather and the timing’s off, we’ve thought up ways to goose things a little bit,” said Brenda Plakans, Welty’s executive director.
Maple syruping (not goosing) is an age-old art that it is said was passed down from Native Americans to the first European settlers in the U.S. and Canada.
The festival includes guided hikes around the environmental center grounds and Big Hill Park, plus a Native American drum and herb-burning (the correct term is “smudging”) ceremony and readings of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s story “Little House in the Big Woods.”
Ingalls Wilder’s story tells about the joys of making maple sugar “candy” using maple syrup and late-winter snow.
Plakans said Maple Sugar Fest, now in its 12th year, is designed as an embracing of all things maple, in an environmental sense. The pancake breakfast drizzled with real maple syrup is just a yummy hook.
“We’re not in the business of pancakes as much as we are in the work of environmental education and history,” she said.
Plakans said the event offers new visitors to Welty a chance to learn about the center’s youth-based environmental education mission and the fact the environmental center, a former Girl Scouts center, exists near Big Hill Park, which once was a draw for ski jumpers.
Plakans said the hope is that Maple Sugar Fest will spur interest, too, from guests who could decide to become volunteers at the center. She said Welty plans future trail and grounds improvements to increase accessibility in the park, and much of that work involves volunteers.
If temperatures happen to climb and stay in the high 30s with chilly overnight lows in the days leading up to Maple Sugar Fest, it might even activate the trees around the 200-acre park. Although Tuszynski said he really can’t predict that yet.
The running of the sap, Tuszynski said, happens when temperatures in midw to late February hit 35 to 40 degrees for a few days running, at least. When that happens, the life force that will awaken a maple tree in the spring begins to move up and down the tree’s trunk.
Then, the tree’s buds swell up like little ice cream cones.
Then—and only then—does a maple syrup-er (or sap collector) know for sure it’s time to tap a spigot into a maple tree and begin collecting in buckets or bags the watery sap that will boil down to a sweet and viscous golden brown liquid: The wild delicacy known as true maple syrup.
The process, which the center shows off at its very own ersatz sugar shack in the woods, is a little more complicated and time consuming than non-syrup makers might imagine. It can take a few days to fill multiple syrup collecting vessels on multiple trees with enough gallons of sap to boil down just a small amount of syrup, and the boiling out of water from the sap is a time-honored and finicky process that involves meticulous heat control—a technique that can take several years to master, Tuszynski said.
It can take eight or nine hours to boil the water out of maple sugar sap to end up with small amount of authentic maple syrup.
“A lot of kids think you stick a spike in a sugar maple tree, turn the spigot on and out comes maple syrup you can pour on your pancakes,” Tuszynski said. “It’s not quite that way.”