ST. CHARLES – The Kane County Forest Preserve took advantage of the short window for maple tree tapping to invite all ages to learn how maple syrup is made.
The Maple Sugaring Days event, free to the public, took place March 3 and 4 at the LeRoy Oakes Forest Preserve on Dean Street in St. Charles Township and was staffed by Kane County naturalist volunteers.
The perfect weather for maple tree tapping consists of below-freezing nights and somewhat warmer days, naturalist Ron Usselman said. Once the trees begin budding, the sap begins to travel up the tree to feed the buds, he told 7-year-old Dominic Depasquale. Usselman gave Depasquale and the other youngsters surrounding him an opportunity to hand-drill a hole in a log from a nearby sugar maple tree.
At the next station, naturalist Suzi Myers let 7-year-old St. Charles resident Zack Kluczenko taste the sap dripping into a bucket from the spile, a spout inserted into a standing maple tree to draw off sap. The liquid, the tasters learned, is only about 2 percent sugar and 98 percent water. As a result, it takes many gallons of sap to make a small quantity of maple syrup, usually a 40-to-1 ratio.
Myers explained that tapping the south side of the tree is preferable because the sun shining on it makes the sap flow better. She said that sap is not taken from trees until they are 30 inches in diameter, about 15 to 20 years old. In addition, sap is only taken during two weeks in the year, and not enough is drained to hurt the tree.
The next step in the process involves evaporating the water from the sap. Myers said the American Indians used to pour the sap into the bottom of a canoe and let nature take its course. The water would evaporate, leaving the sweet remains.
Eventually, fire was used to speed up the process, and naturalist Alex Donat encouraged the young visitors to try out a Native American method of creating heat to make fire in which a rope and bow are used to generate friction.
South Elgin resident Abby Ciullo was fairly adept at the process because of experience performing the technique with her father, Brian Ciullo, in the YMCA Adventure Princesses program.
The sap was placed in a wide, flat pan over an open fire, where the liquid slowly thickened. Once the liquid reaches a temperature of 219 degrees Fahrenheit, it becomes syrup. Care has to be taken then to keep it from burning, Donat said.
“It takes 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup,” he said.
The Creek Bend Nature Center was open and participants gathered inside to receive small samples of syrup, obtained from Funks Grove Pure Maple Syrup, an operation located in Shirley, south of Bloomington. There was also maple sugar candy for sale.
Forest Preserve employees estimated that more than 550 visitors enjoyed the event March 3, with more than 700 attending March 4. “It’s good to get everyone out in the fresh air,” Myers said.