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Wisconsin center teaches visitors about making syrup

By Suzanne Weiss
Two Rivers, Wisconsin (AP) April 2011

Wedged between winter and spring is that sweet season called maple syrup time.

With the sun shining overhead and the snow crunching underfoot, Kelly Eskew-Vorron ventures out to the sugar bush at the Woodland Dunes Nature Center and Preserve’s field station to collect sap that will be boiled down to syrup.

The sap begins to run when the days warm up to about 40 degrees, yet the nights still drop to below freezing, said Eskew-Vorron, assistant director and education coordinator at Woodland Dunes.

“As the temperature rises, it actually creates pressure in the tree. When you make a hole in the tree, it’s like a release valve so the sap can flow out,” she said. “There are a lot of theories as to exactly what’s happening inside the tree. It still is a little bit magical. The cooler temperature at night actually draws water into the tree and it replenishes the sap, allowing it to flow the next warm period.”

Maple syrup season typically falls in March and can run anywhere from one to four weeks or longer, depending on the weather, Eskew-Vorron said.

The center’s programs for school groups and the public introduce visitors to the sugar bush, made up of about 30 red maples.

“The Native Americans were the first people to start tapping trees for a food source,” said Eskew-Vorron. “They would often boil it all the way down until it was sugar instead of syrup, because it was easier to carry. They often used it in trade with other tribes who didn’t have maple trees.”

Eskew-Vorron uses an old-fashioned hand drill to make holes in the trees about 2 to 3 inches deep.

“The reason we have to drill 2 to 3 inches is to get to the sapwood of the tree, the part of the tree where the sap is found,” she said.

This isn’t something that’s going to hurt the trees; the cut will heal much like a small cut on your finger, she assures visitors.

A stile is tapped into the hole and acts as a faucet directing the liquid into plastic jugs.

The rule of thumb is to drill about four feet from the ground. “That is high enough so that animals can’t easily get to the sap, but still low enough that it’s easy to take the full jugs off the tree,” Eskew-Vorron said.

It takes a good eight hours from tree to table, she said.

“Sap is actually 97.5 percent water. On average, it’s about 2 percent sugar. The other 0.5 percent is minerals,” Eskew-Vorron said. “We need to boil it down until the sap is 66 percent sugar. We have a big cast-iron pot that we start the boiling process, something like what was used in the 1800s.”

The process continues in stainless steel pans over an open fire during their demonstrations.

“It takes on average about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup,” Eskew-Vorron said. “Some people call it liquid gold . (for) all the energy and time that it takes to produce it.”

What is the most difficult part of making maple syrup?

“Waiting til the season starts,” she answered with a laugh.