Gimme Some Sugar
When the crow begins to caw, signaling the first signs of spring, the sap starts to flow. That’s according to New England legend, and the dedicated employees at Bushy Hill Nature Center in Ivoryton consider it a pretty accurate equation. From mid-February to mid-March each year, visitors are invited to the sugar shack at this 740-acre nature preserve for free demonstrations of the creation of maple syrup from start to finish. Last season’s mild weather resulted in a small, lackluster crop of the thick amber fluid, but Colleen Seymour, farm manager and program teacher at Bushy Hill, has high hopes for the current conditions: “I want to feel like this year is going to be different,” she says. After 20 years of service, the old evaporator is being replaced with a new stainless steel model, providing more excitement for this year’s syrup production.
Usually, a great season requires some snowy months, then a period of freezing nights and warm, sunny days. At just the right time, Seymour utilizes her drill and taps about 50 trees around the property, finding a spot that doesn’t bear a “scar” from a previous year: “You go in a couple inches, about 3 inches into the tree,” she explains. A sugar, red or black maple must be at least 30 years old and 10 inches in diameter in order to be tapped. Seymour says it’s important to choose the side of the tree that receives the most sunlight. She attaches buckets under the taps which she collects twice a day before dumping the clear, water-like sap into the sugar shack’s holding tank. When she has fired up the wood, she opens a valve and lets the sap run into the evaporator. The fire must be robust in order to bring the sap to “the golden temperature” of 220 degrees. “You’re constantly watching as it starts to boil and cook down,” says Seymour. “You kind of get a foamy froth at the top and see the color change.” Now, time is the trick, as hours and hours pass while the batch bubbles to perfection.
For Seymour, the waiting game is the fun part: “You have the fire going, the music on the radio, you’re sitting there, you’ve got a coffee and you know that you’re part of something special.” This endearing, oldfashioned atmosphere at a sugar shack somehow inspires folks to hang around, visit, talk and laugh.
“That’s the nice part of it, the laid back part of it,” agrees Stephen Trojan, Bushy Hill’s director. “You put some wood in there, you kind of sit back and have time to enjoy.” Sweetly scented steam envelopes the small building, providing visitors with a treat for the senses. “You can’t duplicate that,” says Trojan. “It’s an amazing smell.”
This tradition dates back centuries to the time of the Native Americans. According to historical accounts, the Algonquian tribe embarked on the process during the spring thaw by using stone tools and long pieces of bark to gather sap before placing it on hot cooking stones. Though it is often associated with Vermont and New Hampshire, we don’t need to drive hours north to witness this custom, as there are more than 30 sugar shacks open to the public right here in Connecticut during the late winter. The season culminates at the annual Maple Festival in Hebron, being held this year on March 9 and 10.
In this era of technology—computers, video games and instant text messaging—seeing this phenomenon at a sugar shack teaches children about the value of time, patience and the wonders of nature. Seymour invites kids to hold an incredibly heavy piece of maple wood while she describes the qualities of this beautiful tree. “There’s something about the experience out there, the educational piece to it, just to watch it in action, to taste it, to be taught,” says Trojan. “There’s not a kid who says, ‘I’m bored.’ They love it. The steam rising up, you got the smoke everywhere. As a kid, that’s just like:
Wow!” Amazingly, 40 gallons of maple tree sap boils down to just one gallon of syrup. And, when the concoction is done, Seymour pours it through a lambswool filter before funneling the “Grade A Amber” syrup into bottles. Children watch every step and then sample the freshly-made treat, sipping it out of a small plastic cup or getting more creative, if the weather conditions permit. “I always remember the kids used to love it when we’d get a little bit of snow in the cup, pour maple syrup on the top and make a snow cone,” smiles Trojan. “It kind of steps you back in time. It’s really neat.”
After the syrup demonstration, there is an abundance of family fun available at Bushy Hill. “What other sugar shack can you go to and 50 yards away you have wigwam?” laughs Trojan, as he points to several Native America structures set up around a scenic pond. “We have 15, 16 miles of trails open to the public.” These wooded paths lead visitors to unique destinations, such as Cedar Swamp and Berry Berry Island. It’s not unusual to see deer frolicking amongst the trees and fox footprints winding around in the snow. Animals, such as donkeys, llamas and goats, wander around Bushy Hill’s farm space, as the resident peacock routinely squawks his unique “hello” to visitors. Trojan believes there is a magical quality to this wild, untamed land: “It keeps everyone coming back—the woods, the openness of it, the home feeling.”
More than just being a delicious topping for pancakes and waffles, maple syrup symbolizes the pure beauty of New England. Seeing its transformation provides visitors with an intimate connection to nature and an appreciation for our food that comes from the earth, rather than a store shelf. “It’s real, you helped make it,” says Seymour.
This entire process is about simple ingredients and simple pleasures. In the old tune that celebrates this special season, “Maple Syrup Time,” folk singer Pete Seeger says it best: “As in life or revolution, rarely is there a quick solution. Anything worthwhile takes a little time.”
The Bushy Hill Nature Center will be hosting demonstrations on weekends from Feb. 16 through March 16.
For more information, visit www.bushyhill.org.
For details about the festival, visit www.hebronmaplefest.com.
For more than a decade, two-time Emmy Award-winner Sarah Cody of Fox CT has been hiking the hills and sailing the Sound for Daytrippers, a weekly travel series she co-hosts with reporter Jim Altman. Sarah’s two young sons also provide her with plenty of material for her “Mommy Minute” column Mondays in the Hartford Courant.
Click here to see more photos from Bushy Hill Nature Center!