116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — The trees are tapped and the sap is flowing. That means it’s maple syruping time at Indian Creek Nature Center.
I tagged along on an hourlong tour March 2, where volunteer guide Phil Shaff of Shellsburg gave eight of us a hands-on history lesson of a process I remember my grandpa doing each spring on our family farm. He’d tap the big soft maple tree in his yard, collect the sap in a bucket and treat us to hot, homemade syrup poured over our thin Swedish pancakes.
At the end of our nature center tour, we each received a little paper cup of Indian Creek’s homemade maple syrup. Just enough to whet our appetites for the upcoming Maple Syrup Festival, running from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. March 26 and 27.
“It’s Maple Syrupin’ Time!” programs: Indian Creek Nature Center Barn, 6665 Otis Rd. SE, Cedar Rapids; various times March 12 to 20; $4, free ages 2 and under; preregistration required; indiancreeknaturecenter.org/
Maple Syrup Festival: 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. March 26 and 27; Indian Creek Nature Center’s Amazing Space, 5300 Otis Rd. SE, Cedar Rapids; pancake and sausage breakfast, $8 advance, $10 door adults; $4 advance, $5 door ages 4 to 12; free ages 3 and under; indiancreeknaturecenter.org/gallery/maple-syrup-festival Also: shuttle to see syrup making demonstrations and syruping inside the Sugar House near the nature center’s barn
The 39th anniversary of this signature pancake feast is returning indoors at the center’s Amazing Space, 5300 Otis Rd. SE, after being a drive-through event last year.
A shuttle will run between that site and the nearby Penningroth Barn, 6665 Otis Rd. SE, where guests can see how Native Americans and pioneers made syrup, as well as how it’s made today inside the Maple Sugar House just a short hop down the paved path from the barn.
On our tour, the outdoor vessels replicating the bygone methods were empty, but the three children enjoyed picking up stones with antlers, like the Native Americans would have done to heat up their wooden troughs.
A few steps over, the kids eagerly stirred imaginary sap in a kettle suspended over the grass, instead of a fire.
The adults also were invited to join the kids in hoisting some yokes onto their shoulders, to get an idea of how pioneers could have carried sap in pails from the trees to the cooking vessels.
Those various stations will be up and running for real during the Maple Syrup Festival, cooking up actual sap for guests to see how it’s carried, heated and stirred outdoors.
Before the kids on my “It’s Syrupin’ Time!” tour got to let off some steam, they were enveloped in plenty of STEM lessons. We gathered near the barn to learn a little botany and chemistry. Shaff explained how to identify maple trees by their branches and leaves, as well as which ones yield the best syruping sap; how big they need to be before they can be tapped; and how to monitor the number of times a tree is tapped before it gets tapped out.
Posters illustrated not only the anatomy of a tree, but where the weather and trees work in tandem to produce maple syrup. The area’s not as big as you might think.
In the United States, it basically runs from the Canadian border, across upper New England, a slice of Minnesota to Missouri, and the Great Lakes region to Tennessee and tiny pockets of North Carolina where it’s cool enough in the higher altitudes “to get a good sugar bush going,” Shaff explained. (“Sugar bush” is the term for a stand or cluster of maples tapped for syruping sap.)
One of the signs inside the nature center’s Sugar House notes that sap runs when the temperature is 20 to 25 degrees at night and 40 degrees or warmer by day, basically from mid-February to mid-March.
“In Iowa, what we get is the quick warm up, and therefore, we don’t get very long seasons for maple syruping,” Shaff said, “which is why Iowa is not known for maple syrup.”
Syruping also is a labor-intensive process, since it takes 40 gallons of sap to boil down into one gallon of syrup.
Shaff also relayed some of the folklore and traditional stories of ways Native Americans and pioneers discovered sweet sap flowing from the maples, then how they discovered they could refine it into a sugary treat for trading. Europeans were known for having a sweet tooth, he noted, and once the northern settlers figured out how to make maple sugar to sweeten vegetables and meat, they traded it with settlers in the south.
Our tour group then went into the Sugar House to watch the boiling and refining process. A step up lets kids look into the steaming vats, and yellow warning tape rings the area so observers standing on the floor won’t get too close to the boiling liquid.
Signs all around the periphery offer up fun facts and explain the syruping process in layman’s terms.
Then it was time to head back outdoors and actually tap a tree, using a hand-cranked brace drill. The older boy in our group held the brace while the younger two kids took turns with the U-shaped grip to bore a hole into the tree.
Then, with a few taps on the spile, which looks like a small spout, it was in the tree and the sap immediately began dripping. The kids eagerly cupped their hands to catch the drips and lick the sweet sap. The nature center uses plastic bags to catch the clear liquid gold, which generally is collected in the morning and afternoon.
On our way back to the barn, we discovered all sorts of souvenir stick burs clinging to our clothes. My family calls those “stick tights,” since that’s what they do. The internet offers up various ways to get those off your clothes, but I gave up and just pulled them off my pants, shirt and jacket at home. It actually didn’t take too long.
However, sampling a drink of syrup before we left made for a much sweeter memory.
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