WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY
Legends crediting Native Americans with the “discovery” of maple sap flow into our history as easily as sap drips into a bucket on a sunny day on the dawn of spring. My favorite maple sap legend embraces the ways of nature, and salutes the keen observations of the first Americans. It goes something like this: Squirrels licking at sap, dripping from broken sugar maple twigs, in the waning days of winter attracted the attention of Native Americans. The liquid was collected to use in cooking and the process of evaporation sweetened the sap. The rest is history. I accept that as factual, for I often note “sapsicles” forming from broken maple twigs as the duel between winter and spring accelerates. I have also witnessed squirrels lapping at this gift of nature. When hiking in the early days of spring, I follow the behavior of squirrels and sample the trailside treats.
And then there is the more dramatic and perhaps chauvinistic “tomahawk tale” that is shared over and over in literature, without a source. The variations are numerous but the story goes that the chief of a tribe threw a tomahawk at a maple tree and sap dripped from the slash in the bark. The chief then directed his wife to collect the dripping liquid and use it to boil venison. As the sap boiled, it became more concentrated and sweetened the venison. I suspect there is truth in both stories, for storytelling changes in the telling and the passing of time and may be altered to suit the audience.
One fact, however, is certain; maple syrup was in production in the northeast of Canada and much of the Midwest and northeast of United States long before the first Europeans sailed across the oceans. I’ve been a fan of maple sap collection and the making of syrup ever since attending college in a rural Vermont landscape, rich with the nearby romantic settings of wooden sugar shacks with chimneys emitting plumes of steam. Some of the operations even used workhorses that slogged along country roads, pulling a wagon that carried full buckets of sap from the sugar bush. Others used college students eager to learn the ways of the wild. A “sugar bush,” by the way, refers to a woodland or stand of maple trees which are utilized for maple syrup. It might be many dozens of acres in size, a row of maples along a country road, or just a few maple trees in an Oakland County yard.
The 2019 maple season in Oakland County is rapidly coming to a close, but sap is still running and may go for another week or two, as long as the daytime temperatures rise above freezing and the night temperatures slip back below freezing. You can find the science of sap flow here.
Once the buds swell and open, the season ends, regardless of the temperature. With those facts in mind, I hurried off to the Dinosaur Hill Nature Preserve late last week on an overcast, drizzly day to witness an end of the season maple program for preschoolers.
Much of the 16-acre Dinosaur Hill Nature Preserve lies in the flood plain of Paint Creek, and there is even a spur trail along the Paint Creek Trail that connects to the preserve. I entered off of North Hill Circle, it’s just a few minutes drive from the busy intersection of Rochester and Tienken Roads, and tagged along on their maple sugaring expedition after a lively and fun indoor introduction. It included basic tree identification, simple facts on how temperature affects sap flow, how trees are tapped and even some dancing and singing. With excitement stirred, we headed to a small outbuilding to sample maple sugar candy, see replicas of Chippewa gathering containers and boiling methods, view dioramas and partake in a bit of role playing. With the group fully enthused, it was time for the very short trek along a still icy path to the preserve’s sugar bush where recycled milk containers hung from spiles placed in holes drilled into the maple trees at the edge of small wooded wetland. Enthusiasm was contagious as eager tongues tried to catch maple sap drops while Red-bellied Woodpeckers sang in the distance. From there, it was back inside for crafts, snacks and an overview of this back to the basics kid-friendly nature program on the not so wild side of our county.
Perhaps you may want to learn how to make maple syrup? Do you have maple trees? If so, perhaps you have dreamed about sugaring — the process of collecting maple sap and boiling it down to make syrup. It really is fun and rather easy. It can be done on a small or larger scale, depending on the time you have available, the weather, and of course your access to maple trees. Sap from all maple trees can be boiled down to make syrup, but the sugar maple has the highest concentration of sugar and is used the most often. Remember that most equipment to go “sugaring” can be improvised, borrowed, bought used, or otherwise scrounged! Gallon-size plastic milk cartoons, like those used at Dinosaur Hill, make perfect collection containers.
Sugaring on a small scale is a great way to welcome spring, and the sap is still running! By the time our small creeks are totally free of ice, the sap run will end. However, with just a few sugar maple trees you may be able to make enough late-season syrup for a gift for a friend or two. Keep in mind it takes about 40 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of finished syrup. At the very least, you should be able to make enough syrup for a morning pancake for yourself, and then plan ahead for next year. The Minnesota DNR has a great Basics of Maple Syrup PDF. Many of our Huron-Clinton Metroparks, Oakland County Parks, and local municipal parks offer annual maple sugaring programs, (don’t forget Dinosaur Hill!) so after tapping your tree for a 2019 taste test, mark your calendar for a 2020 maple madness program on the wilder side of Oakland County and get those pancakes ready.
Spring has arrived, making this a great time to explore and hike. Casual visits to the Dinosaur Hill Nature Preserve and trail are free of charge, however classes and field trips are fee based and require pre-registration. The nature trail is open from dawn to dusk, seven days a week. The Dinosaur Hill website includes a listing of upcoming Dinosaur Hill programs from now well into the summer.
Jonathan Schechter is the Nature Education Writer for Oakland County Government and blogs weekly about nature’s way, trails, and wildlife on the Wilder Side of Oakland County.