116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
With the polar vortex in the rearview mirror, the sap is flowing in time for tap dances around Vecny Woods west of Indian Creek Nature Center in southeast Cedar Rapids.
When the sap starts moving, 'it seems like magic,” said Jean Wiedenheft, the Nature Center's director of land stewardship.
Volunteers began tapping trees on Monday, and the process will continue as the Nature Center celebrates maple syruping time throughout March. Educational programming will give small groups a taste of syrup-making past and present, meeting by appointment at the Barn, 6665 Otis Rd. SE. And on March 20, the annual pancake breakfast will move to a drive-through format from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Amazing Space, 5300 Otis Rd. SE.
Traditionally the Nature Center's biggest fundraiser of the year, the pandemic shut down last year's public programming March 13, but the sap kept flowing and the syrup kept boiling, packaged for sale at the Creekside Shop within the Amazing Space.
The derecho hit the center's woodlands especially hard, but spared the maple trees in the 28-acre Vecny Woods, which the Nature Center tends at the intersection of 44th Street and Otis Road SE.
'The name means ‘forever' in the Czech language. We got the woods with the intention of protecting it forever, hence its name,” Wiedenheft said. 'We lost some trees in that overall forest, but none of the maples, and it still remains a very healthy, healthy landscape.
'It's a beautiful piece of property,” she added. 'It has a lot of mature walnuts on it, the stand of maple trees, some oaks. We're working on putting a trail in it this year. So it's just a beautiful woodland that will be protected forever.”
The low-lying silver maple forest near the Barn sustained 'a fair amount of damage,” Wiedenheft noted. That stand of trees on the south side of Otis Road SE and west of Indian Creek remains inaccessible. It lies in the flood plain, and the boardwalk leading to that area also was damaged, awaiting repairs this year.
The box elder trees they tap in that area - also part of the maple family - are reaching the end of their life span, Wiedenheft added, and since the 1980s, sugar maples have been added each year to replace them.
'So over time, it should give us a diverse taste forest,” she said.
It takes a lot of sap to make syrup. The sap is collected in plastic bags attached to the taps, then emptied into five-gallon buckets and transported to the sugar house, where the sap is boiled in a stainless steel evaporator. For sugar maples, it takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. Box elder sap contains less sugar, so the ratio is upped to 55 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.
It takes 25 gallons of syrup to drench the pancakes served during the festival.
'Some years we make more than we use, some years we make less than we use,” Wiedenheft said, with the most being 43 gallons one year, and the least being 9 gallons. When the need is greater than the yield, they purchase real maple syrup from Wisconsin to supplement supplies.
Pre-pandemic, the festival ran for two days, bringing in 3,000 people hungry for breakfast and thirsting for knowledge about the syrup-making process. With this year's festival scaled back to a one-day drive-through format, organizers are planning for 2,000 guests. Each $6 meal includes three pancakes, two sausage links and maple syrup. Diners can pay on-site or purchase tickets in advance on the Nature Center's website.
Volunteers from Carpenters Union Local 308 will again be flipping the flapjacks, as they've done for more than 20 years. People from the pipe fitters and electricians unions also will help with various aspects of the event. More hands are needed, as well, to help fill syrup cups, mix batter, greet guests, box and deliver orders to vehicles. In return, volunteers will receive a free meal. Anyone wishing to help can click the link on the website or email firstname.lastname@example.org
New this year is a raffle, with various outdoor-themed prize packages valued at $250 or more. Other goods available for purchase at the breakfast include honey, maple syrup, pints of maple syrup ice cream from Dan and Debbie's Creamery in Ely, and a limited quantity of maple beer brewed by Iowa Brewing Co.
All month long, small groups can sign up for maple syruping programs to explore the processes used by Native Americans, pioneers and today's syrup makers. The very first thing participants will learn is who thought up the whole notion of gathering sap and boiling it into syrup.
Program content will remain the same as in previous years, from learning how Native Americans used deer antlers to move heated stones into hollowed logs where the syrup was made, to the pioneer practice of carrying a yoke with buckets on either end. Participants also will go inside the sugar house - a few at a time - to see the modern process, and receive a syrup sample in a compostable cup.
Each hourlong program is restricted to 20 people. Participants are asked to dress for the weather, wear masks and practice physical distancing. Hand sanitizing stations and extra masks will be available, as well.
Students can up their STEM game, in the process.
'(We're) definitely looking at earth science, biology and life science as the core elements of that STEM science, technology, engineering, math,” said Kelli Kennon-Lane, the Nature Center's director of education. 'Children will be learning how the sap flows, temperatures, the anatomy of a tree, tree identification and how that all plays into sap flowing out of a tree. And then they'll be learning the different historical methods of how sap becomes maple syrup.”
Some of the programming slots are full or filling up, so family bubbles and small groups like Scouts or classes shouldn't wait too long to plan their outings. Iowans are eager to get outdoors, which organizers said is part of the syruping program's appeal.
'This programing comes on the heels of long winters,” Kennon-Lane said. 'The days are starting to get longer; the temperatures are warming up; we're all coming out of hibernation; the earth is coming out of hibernation. So I think just the general excitement to get outside to do something a little bit more active with your family or with your friends or your school group is just appealing this time of year. So when we can tack on some educational value and a pancake breakfast to that, of course, it's like just an added bonus.
It also appeals across the generations, giving some participants the chance to relive happy memories of tapping trees.
'Some people remember doing it when they were younger,” Wiedenheft said. 'It's something parents can do with their kids today if they have a maple tree.
'It's a way to use the forest and maybe interact with your tree a little bit more, and I think people find that very appealing, especially as we look at passing on our skills and knowledge to the next generation,” she said. 'A lot of families come out, a lot of grandparents come out with their grandkids. It's just a neat way to connect with the land, and then they go home and tap their own tree. So there's a strong family connection and land connection that I think people find valuable.
'And then so much of our processes today in our agriculture are very industrial and they're very removed from people. You go into a store and you buy a bottle of maple syrup and you don't know anything about it or where it came from before you put your hand on it in the store,” she noted.
'You come out here and you can tap that tree, you can go into the sugar house and see a volunteer stoking the fire and see what a rapid boil really means and see 40 gallons of basically steam coming out of that evaporator going up - and you're part of that process.”
Comments: (319) 368-8508; email@example.com
If you go
Maple syrup time
Indian Creek Nature Center, 5300 Otis Rd. SE, Cedar Rapids
' Maple syrup programs:
Throughout March, explore syrup making from Native American and pioneer ways to today; 60-minute outdoor activity, by reservation for groups up to 20 participants, meeting at the Nature Center Barn, 6665 Otis Rd. SE; $4, free ages 2 and under
Drive-through pancake breakfast, 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. March 20, Amazing Space, 5300 Otis Rd. SE; $6 per meal on-site or in advance online; raffle tickets $5 each or $20 for five, packages values at $250