How Sweet It Is
By Jerry “Paw Paw” Wochna
Once upon a time in early March, when the morning was like winter, but the afternoon was morphing into spring, I lost my way while walking through a wooded area somewhere on the borders of Medina/Ashland counties. As I struggled through the brush to find my way out of the forest, I bumped into a beautiful fifty-foot tall Acer sacchrum
tree commonly known as a sugar maple. Native to Ohio, sugar maples have few rivals in Fall color with their radiant shades of golden yellow and blazing orange and red leaves. But today, only the colors of gray-brown bark greeted me.
I heard an unusual sound in the distance: “Tout-tout”.
It was a whistle. It sounded again.
This was no ordinary whistle: it was steam whistle! I must be near a railroad track. I imagined a steam engine puffing down a rail siding. I had to see this sight.
I hurried through the brambles as fast as I could. I could hear the whistle growing louder and the trees were clearing ahead. In the clearing, with the whistle still blowing loud and clear, I saw…not a steam engine…but a small barn engulfed in white billowing clouds of steams. A thin smokestack raised twenty feet in the air with the whistle attached to the top.
What was this building? What was going on inside? I had to solve this mystery! I briefly lost a battle with a barb wire fence until one of the people in the building came out and helped me untangle myself. We soon became friends and just as quickly I was put to work in the curious steam shrouded building. Put to work making maple syrup!
My new friends told me the small barn was a “sugar shack”. The sugar maples trees on their farm were tapped with spouts were placed in the tree. These spouts had hooks to hold the buckets which collected the maple water sap. The sap buckets we used were 16-quart galvanized metal with a metal cover on the top. The cover prevents rain water from getting inside the bucket. I secretly sampled the sap and detected only the slightest taste of sweetness.
We dumped the buckets of tree sap into a large, open vat that might have been a hundred or so gallons, which was on a cart pulled by horses; taking great care not to spill any of the sap. The horses pulled the vats to the sugar shack where they were emptied into a large stainless-steel leader evaporator pan. Here the sap is boiled to roughly 219 degrees Fahrenheit. It takes approximately 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. It’s best to do this process outside, if you try this in your kitchen you will create a mini-rain forest. My friends use the steam from a giant boiler to “vaporize” the water out of the tree sap which is a much faster process than the more traditional firebox evaporators.
Did you know that Cleveland Metroparks makes maple syrup too? In early March you can join Naturalists in Rocky River Reservation on a hike along the Sugarbush Trail to learn the history of maple sugaring and see how it’s done today.
Sometimes it’s good to get lost once; you just might stumble onto something sweet.
Maple sugaring is available on weekends through March 15 at the Maple Grove Picnic Area in Rocky River Reservation. Walk through time along the Sugarbush Trail to see the sap-collecting methods and syrup-making processes used by the First People, 19th-century settlers, and modern sugar farmers. You’ll end at the sugarhouse to watch sap boiled into delicious maple syrup. Guided hikes leave the sugarhouse every 30 minutes (last hike at 2:30 p.m.) Groups may be accommodated on weekdays by appointment only. This program is completely outdoors—dress for the weather.
About the Author
Jerry "Paw Paw" Wochna has been with Cleveland Metroparks for twenty years and is currently working in Rocky River Reservation. His passions are native pollinating plants, farming, and making maple syrup. Some of you met Jerry at our Donor Appreciation Dinner last year, where he brought a red wagon full of beautiful native plants!