Maple syrup tours under way at Ryerson Woods
By Frank Abderholden firstname.lastname@example.org March 3, 2013 5:50PM
Mark Hurley an environmental educator with the Lake County Forest Preserve talks about the sugar maple trees at the Ryerson Forest Preserve in Riverwoods during a Maple Syrup Hike at the preserve Saturday as Noah Weiss, 7, of Mundelein (center) and Emma McGreevy, 11, of Libertyville (right) watch. | Michael Schmidt~Sun-Times Media
In 2008, the Ryerson Woods Forest Preserve made 10 gallons of syrup, the most in the past seven years. In 2009, only 4.5 gallons were produced. Out of a month, there may only be seven good days of tapping. Commercial tapping companies use hoses connected to the trees to bring the sap to the evaporator. Real maple syrup can be very expensive.
Updated: May 3, 2013 1:15AM
The sweet sap of Sugar Maples attracts everything from animals and insects to hundreds of people at the Ryerson Conservation Area in Riverwoods at this time of year, maybe because this is one of the few places on earth where the right trees and climate exist.
On Sunday, Noah Weiss, 7, of Mundelein shouted out answers and exclamations as he and his family, including brother, Evan, 4, and parents, Betsy and Rob, took the one-hour tour offered by the Lake County Forest Preserve District. It included an indoor portion with sap and syrup tasting and an explanation of how a maple tree works, and a short outdoor hike to see how tapping a tree is done and then gathering around the fire under the evaporator and tasting real maple syrup candy.
“It’s funner than I thought it would be,” said Noah as he headed down the trail on the last leg of the adventure.
The maple syrup tours are a popular event that occurs in March and began this weekend with more than 200 people attending Saturday and Sunday. The one-hour hikes run every half-hour from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m., and are open to all ages. Registration is required and hikes fill fast. Cost is $6 per person and children age 3-under are free. Special sessions designed especially for large parties or Scout groups are also available by calling (847) 968-3321. Go to www.lcfd.org.
The indoor portion is held in a classroom inside the forest preserves’ environmentally friendly visitor center where rainwater is gathered for everything from flushing toilets to watering flower beds. Large windows let the natural light into the classroom. Hurley explained that parts of the northern United States and Canada are the only places where weather conditions and large trees give the highest percentage of sugar in the sap.
“It has the highest content of sugar in its sap, about 4 percent. Go anywhere else in the world, but you won’t find that high of a sugar content,” he said, and that makes the best syrup. He explained that more than 300,000 leaves on just one large tree use the sun to produce the sugar, and the water and minerals in the sap come from the roots and forest floor. In late fall ,all the sap drains back into the roots through microscopic phloem tubes and waits there until February when it starts warming enough that the tree sends the sap back up the tree through microscopic xylem tubes in the outer tree trunk.
Does taking 10-20 gallons of sap from a tree with a thousand gallons hurt the tree?
“We’re not hurting the tree at all,” said Hurley. This year, they did not tap the usual number of trees because they didn’t want to stress too many trees that have already been stressed by the drought last year.
In the classroom, you get to taste the sap and some syrup that was boiled down from the sap. It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup. “I love it,” exclaimed Evan, “It tastes like sugar water.” Then, the real syrup taste test commences and there is a hushed “mmmmmmm” in the classroom. “I’ll buy some of this instead of that other stuff in the store mom,” said Noah. His brother chimed in, “It tastes yummier.”
You also learn how to identify a maple by its opposite branches (like a cross), how to use an old fashioned drill to make about an inch and a half hole in the tree and see how the spile that is hammered in catches sap with a hole on the bottom. The four gallon bucket can be filled in a day if the temperature hits 50 degrees. On this Sunday, there was an unexpected nature lesson when a Least shrew, about half the size of a thumb, was found dead inside a bucket because it was going after the sap.
“Moths, ants and chipmunks are attracted to the sap,” says Hurley. “It’s too bad, these are very common in the Midwest. They live on the forest floor and eat bugs. In winter, they eat roots and seeds,” he said, “Up north, bears will just rip the bucket off the tree.”
While Rob said he had been on the tour before (“I’ve been to it a few times awhile ago. It’s a good refresher,” he said.), his wife was taking it for the first time and she thought it was perfect for the kids.
“We loved it. It was really nice to get outside. I didn’t know it was here,” she said.
Hurley also explained how maple syrup was one of the oldest commodities to ever be sold or traded in the United States because Native Americans learned to use a hatchet and a deer skin bag to collect it and then use a hollow log and hot rocks to evaporate off the water. “They used it to flavor meat and vegetables,” said Hurley.
For Noah, gathering around the evaporator while a fire roared beneath the big steal tub and lent the smell of a camp fire to the gathering was nice, but the best was “When I got the candy,” he said referring to how hike ends with a little taste of real maple syrup candy the district buys. The syrup from the trees is used for the tours and for a volunteer pancake party. A large number of tour guides are trained volunteers.
Heather McGreevy of Libertyville taught the school maple syrup program and was there for a refresher course with her daughter Emma, 11. The best part for her, “tasting the syrup,” because of course, “I really like pancakes.”
The Weiss family had waffles that morning and while Evan liked the syrup tasting and the candy, what he liked best was seeing the small carnivorus mammal, the shrew. “I liked seeing the animal,” said the Evan, possibly a future biologist.