As the depths of winter hint at spring, New England’s sugar maples begin pumping their sap from the roots through the trunk and New England sugar-makers work fast to produce the year’s crop of maple syrup. They know that the optimal period of cold nights and warm days required to make the sap run passes as swiftly as autumn foliage.
That sweet season is cause for celebration at several Mass Audubon sanctuaries: the Boston Nature Center in Mattapan, Drumlin Farm in Lincoln, Moose Hill in Sharon, and Ipswich River in Topsfield. The sites are offering programs from late February through the middle of March that give a closeup look at maple sugaring. After you’ve plied your offspring with pancakes and maple syrup at home, take them for a tramp through the woods. They’ll see how the sap is collected and stand around the sugarhouse where a whole lot of tree juice is transformed into just a little bit of syrup.
The maple programs make perfect family experiences during the pandemic, since they take place almost entirely outside, explains Mass Audubon senior naturalist Tia Pinney. Most sessions start with a walk in the company of a naturalist who explains how to identify a sugar maple (hint: in winter it’s not by the leaves) and talks a bit about the ecology of the sugarbush forest.
Participants also learn about the history of maple sugaring. Native Americans certainly gathered maple sap, Pinney explains, but it’s unclear how they used it. Maple became an important cash crop for New England farmers during an otherwise slow season, and maple syrup and sugar were highly prized by 19th-century abolitionists. They saw maple as a morally superior replacement for white sugar associated with the trade in enslaved people. What used to be called ‶fancy″ grade maple syrup was, in fact, the lightest and least maple flavored. An overhaul of the grading system now labels all maple syrup as ‶Grade A″ with a color indicator to show depth of flavor. Modern taste leans toward the richly flavored ‶Grade A Medium Amber.″
The Mass Audubon sites use a mixture of old-fashioned galvanized buckets and more modern tubing to collect sap, though Drumlin Farm is completely tap and bucket. The boiling off at the sugarhouse is perhaps the most dramatic part of the experience. The air fills with sweet-smelling billows of steam as fire under the evaporator pan concentrates the sap, making the sweetness more and more pronounced. Pinney says that the most frequently asked question is: When do you add the sugar? It’s the naturalist’s cue to explain that no sugar is added in the process but that it takes a large volume of sap to produce maple syrup. Pinney says that her records show that Drumlin Farm in recent years has been operating at a 60 to 1 ratio — 60 gallons of sap to make a single gallon of syrup.
All programs require preregistration, and it’s wise to register early as numbers are limited. School vacation week programs and their wait lists were filled by mid-January, but later programs were still open. Programs operate in all weather. Participants get a chance to taste the syrup, and bottles of freshly made syrup will be available for sale as long as the supply holds out.
Mass Audubon is also launching the Bird-friendly Maple Project in Massachusetts, a program to certify maple producers that manage a diverse forest habitat of sugar maples mixed with other trees and shrubs. In addition to providing nesting and foraging habitat for a variety of birds, such forests are more resilient to climate change and tend to produce more syrup per tree. Modeled after Audubon Vermont’s program, it is a joint operation with the Massachusetts Woodlands Institute, the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, and the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association. Certified producers will be able to label their syrup with a colorful seal that shows a red bird and the words ‶Produced in Bird-friendly Habitats.″