Maple Syrup Days marks its 30th year

LaGrange County Parks Superintendent George DeWald checks the connections on a new vacuum system for collecting maple sap at the trails near Maple Wood Nature Center. (Independent Photo by Amy Oberlin)

LaGrange County Parks Superintendent George DeWald checks the connections on a new vacuum system for collecting maple sap at the trails near Maple Wood Nature Center. (Independent Photo by Amy Oberlin)

It’s a good year for maple syrup, said LaGrange County Parks Superintendent George DeWald.

And, the Maple Wood sap collection process is better than ever.

DeWald constructed a system using a wet vacuum line to pump sap directly from the trees into two 300-gallon plastic containers. The containers, donated by Snax In Pax of Topeka, formerly held molasses.

This week, when student tours of the Maple Wood sugar bush began, the new vacuum system added a modern edge to the lesson. One thousand feet of multicolored tubing snake through the timber, looping back to the square white containers, positioned along a trail.

Around 500 taps were placed on maple trees at the LaGrange County Nature Preserve, owned by ACRES Land Trust and adjacent to LaGrange County Parks’ Maple Wood Nature Center, 4550 E. 100S, LaGrange.

Maple Syrup Days will be held at Maple Wood Saturday, March 18 and Sunday, March 19, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. The South Milford Lions Club will serve a pancake and sausage breakfast, 7 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., both days. Adult meals cost $9; $4 for children 4-10 years old.

There will be demonstrations in the Sugar Shack, shows by Roz Puppets, maple products to purchase and rides through the sugar bush by the DeKalb Horsemen’s Association.

This is the 30th year for Maple Syrup Days, LaGrange County Parks’ signature event. Around 4,200 people attend every year. A record number of school groups – 1,200 students – went on the field trip last year. This year, the same number are expected.

The sales of maple products, notably maple syrup cooked in the Sugar Shack, fund park projects.

According to national reports, the warm January and February got sap running earlier than usual.

At Maple Wood, park employees installed 55 classic metal taps into trees, collected in old-school metal buckets. Another 420 plastic taps were installed throughout the preserve along with 50 on the vacuum system.

All trees have sap, but maple sap is considered the sweetest. Sap is collected for a period of time in the spring before the tree starts to bloom.

“They equate it to you donating blood,” said LaGrange County Parks and Recreation Director Mary Franke. “There’s plenty of sap left for the tree to use.”

Park employees have already collected more than 70 gallons. Franke said last week’s temperatures were ideal, with daytime highs in the 40s and nighttime lows in the 20s, freezing the trees during the dark hours and thawing them in the sun.

But early spring weather could end the syrup season soon.

“Once they start to bud, that’s the end of the show,” said DeWald, who networks with other sugar makers in the area.

“There’s a few sugar bushes around here that have more taps than we did,” said DeWald.

At Maple Wood this year, the goal is to take guests on a trip through time, showing the old-fashioned way of collecting syrup and DeWald’s new, cleaner method.

Constructed for around $300 using an RV heating and air-conditioning pump and battery, the unit is constantly collecting sap from tubing webbed through the forest. There are two 500- foot runs.

“It’s been a big labor saver,” DeWald said. The process gleans 50% more sap, which is cleaner because it flows directly from the tubes into the enclosed plastic containers, instead of being collected in buckets that bugs and mice can crawl into.

The vacuum system is at the end of the tour, at the point school groups learn a little about photosynthesis, the way the trees use the resources around them – such as sunlight and water – to create the sap, their own lifeblood, which they share in the late winter with humans who enjoy something sweet on their pancakes.

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