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Maple Syrup Festival celebrates 40 years of sweetness
A nostalgia that spans generations brings new ‘champions of nature’ into the fold
CEDAR RAPIDS — Year to year, the syrup tastes about the same. But after 40 years, the Maple Syrup Festival has gotten sweeter with time.
This year, more than 1,800 gallons of sap joins tens of thousands collected since the festival started in the 1984.
That makes 2023 one of the top producing years for the grove of maple trees at Indian Creek Nature Center, beating 2004’s record and rivaling the 2,000 to 2,500 gallons collected in 2005 and 2006.
But through thick and thin, it’s more than a pancake topping.
If you go
What: 40th anniversary of the Maple Syrup Festival
Where: Indian Creek Nature Center, 5300 Otis Rd. SE, Cedar Rapids. Navigate from Mount Vernon Road via 44th Street and Otis Road, as the Bertram Road Bridge is closed.
When: 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 25, and Sunday, March 26
Tickets: $12 adults; $6 children age 4 to 12; free children under 4. Save $2 per ticket by purchasing in advance online at indiancreeknaturecenter.org.
Details: Enjoy locally sourced maple syrup tapped from nearby trees with breakfast, through Dan and Debbie’s Creamery maple-infused ice cream, or in a new blonde stout from Backpocket Brewing Co. for the 40th anniversary. Ice cream and beer available for purchase at the Creekside Shop during Maple Syrup Festival.
After you finish eating, see syrup-making demonstrations and check out the action inside the Maple Syrup House.
For more details, visit indiancreeknaturecenter.org.
Each year, 29 taps on trees at Indian Creek Nature Center’s grove of maples fills plastic bags with clear, watery sap. A volunteer-led team of six to 12 people collect bags daily, filling a larger tank that’s transported to the Maple Syrup House for storage.
This year, after storms flooded the grove, volunteers used canoes for the first time to collect sap early in the season.
Through the season of mid-February through March, maple trees rely on the weather to wake them up and pull sap from their roots at the right cadence. The ideal season alternates freezing nights and days of about 40 degrees.
Each tap provides about 100 gallons per year. It takes about 40 gallons of watery sap to make one gallon of maple syrup.
From the storage tank, sap is continually fed by a tube into an evaporation tank, where a wood fire continues to boil the syrup down for hours at a time into the sugary form used for pancakes, ice cream and more.
The syrup is filtered to remove sugar sand, then goes to a finishing tank until it reaches a sugar density level of 66 percent.
Mike Duss, who has been processing the syrup for 15 years, said they’re able to make roughly six gallons of syrup per week.
On an average year, the Indian Creek Nature Center volunteers bottle about 18 gallons of syrup. This year, they’ve bottled over 30.
The trickiest part is cooking the syrup just enough. The liquid can look close to syrup, but needs to be boiled just enough to get it to the right sugar density without overcooking it.
“It can be somewhat critical getting to that point,” Duss said.
If it’s overcooked, it becomes maple candy. Cook it down even further, and you get maple sugar.
Later this year, the center hopes to bring in new equipment with a reverse osmosis process that would reduce the amount of water stored in the sap, increasing storage capabilities and decreasing the amount of cooking time it takes to get syrup to the right stage. That equipment will be in use for next year’s Maple Syrup Festival.
Continuing the heritage
For the average consumer, the maple-flavored high-fructose corn syrup varieties from the grocery store shelves are as much interaction as they have with syrup.
Former Indian Creek Nature Center director Rich Patterson cooked up the idea for the Maple Syrup Festival in 1984. But over the years, the signature event has become more than chance to eat a novel breakfast for thousands of people.
“It’s a direct connection to the land for the people,” said Jean Wiedenheft, director of land stewardship. “It connects you with the forest, and it connects you with your food in one of the most simple ways possible. Helping understand that connection is beautiful and important.”
Children brought to the festival in the 1980s and 1990s are now returning with their children and grandchildren, bringing new generations into the fold each year.
For many, it’s nostalgia that keeps them coming back. But for others, it’s a chance to reflect and learn about the world around them as they reconnect with nature — an emphasis underscored by the pandemic.
“They need exposure to tradition, to see how things used to be and still are,” Duss said. “They might not see it when they go to the store to buy stuff.”
The annual festival and syrup program also is one of the nature center’s best examples of a multigenerational approach to education that wraps around the entire family.
As weather patterns the maple trees rely on are threatened by climate change, the educational aspect of the festival will be more important than ever in helping others understand how it all comes to fruition.
Each year, the nature center receives thousands of Eastern Iowa students visiting on field trips for 60 to 90 minutes. But educators at Indian Creek Nature Center wanted to have an even deeper impact.
“The way to deepen the impact to create champions of nature was to serve other adults in children’s lives — programs for teenagers, grandparents, adults,” said Kelli Kennon-Lane, director of education. “These programs are so skillfully designed so that your preschooler can get just as much out of it as a parent or high schooler. Everyone leaves learning something new but also enjoying their time at our sugar house.”
When “champions of nature” are activated through the Maple Syrup Festival, a free yoga series on the patio, a wedding in the auditorium or a hike around the woods, they become engaged enough to help give back to nature — thinking about how to conserve water at home, caring for flora and fauna in their own backyard, and doing what they can to combat climate change.
With the most southern and western region in the country for maple syrup production, permanent disruption of critical patterns in northeast Iowa would mean the end of maple syruping.
“You cannot tap maple trees in Des Moines or Council Bluffs. We’re on the edge,” Kennon-Lane said. “If we don’t create champions of nature willing to do hard work now to reverse or halt climate change, we might lose this special, precious thing in Cedar Rapids.”
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