When I was growing up, there was no better way to say goodbye to winter than with a trip to the sugar bush. The remaining snow made the perfect base for hot maple taffy, and the bright sun, new maple buds and running sap were the ultimate signs that spring was on its way.
After a long, cold winter, I jumped at the chance to volunteer with LEAF for the March Break Maple Tree Tour at the Kortright Centre for Conservation. I thought that it would be a great way to welcome spring and relive some of my favourite childhood memories. We were joined by over 25 participants, mostly young families taking part in their first trip to the sugar bush – a very exciting first.
We began the tour at 10 a.m., led by Sabrina Chiefari, an environmental educator from the Kortright Centre and Robyn Stewart, LEAF’s education and outreach coordinator. The sun was shining and, despite a few cold toes, there was little complaining as our guides brought us along an interactive tour explaining how trees make sap and how people make syrup.
We learned how to identify leafless maple trees by their grayish brown flaky bark and opposite branches; how to measure the approximate age for tapping by measuring the tree’s circumference; and how 40 litres of sap are needed to make just one litre of syrup. “40 litres?” one boy asked. “Wow, that’s a lot.”
It was a lot, especially for Aboriginal communities who had discovered the “sweet water” and collected it using stone tools, birch bark and wood. European settlers first modernized the collection using wooden pails, then eventually iron and aluminum until finally transitioning to the plastic tubing we use today.
Ontario and Quebec’s maple forests have thrived in large part due to the region’s climate. The fluctuation above and below freezing allows the sap to rise during the day to feed the leaves and descends at night. The sap is collected on its way down as it races back to the roots in the same way we run inside when it gets cold.
The maple syrup produced during March or the “Sugar Maple Moon” provided sustenance for early communities before the spring thaw. Today, we don’t need maple syrup to survive, but it does offer sustenance in other ways. I know I must not be the only Canadian who looks forward to the spring thaw and its rituals of hearty pancake breakfasts and trips to the sugar bush.
Originally published on March 24, 2015 at Local Enhancement and Appreciation of Forests (LEAF)
Photos by David Slaughter