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Learning about the sweet success of making maple syrup

Naturalist Connie Cox watches as Nate Selander, 8, of Hubbard, uses a cordless drill to make a hole for the spile to fit into. He learned that a sloping upward hole works best to draw the sap out. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)1 / 2
Erica VanDenhuevel, 8, of Bertha gently taps her spigot into a sugar maple. She learned that pounding a spile into a tree can cause irreparable damage if you split the bark. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)2 / 2

The painstaking art and science of making maple syrup might be wasted on an impatient generation of antsy kids, especially when the sap isn't running, but the taste is nevertheless appealing.

Naturalists at Itasca State Park gave a demonstration of making maple syrup last Saturday afternoon. Unfortunately, three maple trees tapped would not yield any sap. It was just too cold.

Naturalists Connie Cox and Sandra Lichter explained the Ojibwa tradition of tapping trees and harvesting the sap, which is then boiled down to syrup over what seemed to kids like a millennium of time.

"I'm bored," one little girl complained to her mother once the classroom lecture was over and the outdoors demonstration began.

Park visitors learned the average sugar maple will yield anywhere from 5 to 20 gallons of sap. Those are the trees with the highest sugar content.

The Ojibwa would insert a V-shaped gash in the tree bark, then insert a wooden spile in it. Metal spiles are now used. They cause less damage to the trees.

But the kids, bored or otherwise, were quick learners. They understood they needed to tap the sunny side of the tree, which is warmer and allows the sap to run.

They even knew, at day's end, which trees were maples, and could differentiate a sugar maple from a red maple. Sugar maples have black berries; red maples have red berries.

The park uses recycled plastic gallon milk jugs to collect the sap. The jugs hook on to the sap spigot easily and prevent bark and bugs from getting into the sap.

Most maple syrup makers use more expensive galvanized tin buckets with lids. It really doesn't matter.

Cox showed slides of the tedious cooking process, in which 32 gallons of sap is boiled down to make 1 gallon of syrup. The reason for all the boiling is to get the water evaporated off the batch, and condense it to its highest sugar content possible.

Candy makers probably have an advantage at this stage. A candy thermometer and some cooking skills will prevent the sap from boiling over, turning milky or burning.

It was the taste tests that the kids crowded in for. Brooke Schlador, 6, of Little Bemidji, made a face when she tested the pure maple syrup. She, like many kids, are used to Mrs. Butterworth's.

But they also clamored to use the cordless drill to make the hole, and use the hammer to tap in the spigot. By day's end no one was bored anymore.