MapleFest at Red Oak taps sweet taste of spring
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A group of young onlookers watches intently as sap is collected from a maple tree during last year's MapleFest at Red Oak Nature Center in Batavia.
Courtesy Fox Valley Park District
We adults could not have asked it better - or more succinctly - than the young questioner.
As our group enjoyed a beautiful spring day last March at the Red Oak Nature Center in Batavia, he popped the question to the tour guide, speaking with a hint of skepticism and demanding evidence.
"How do you get maple syrup out of a tree trunk?"
Glad he asked. Hopefully, he'll be on hand to hear and see the answers next at Red Oak on Saturday, March 20), when the annual MapleFest is held from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
It's an exciting opportunity for children and adults alike to learn of this centuries-old practice of tapping maple trees and collecting sap for syrup.
Starting at 9 a.m., demonstrations will be staged on the hour, with the last presentation beginning at 1 p.m. Visitors will venture into the surrounding woods at Red Oak to insert taps into the trees and collect sap from those already tapped, then return to the nature center and see how the sap is boiled down to create syrup. A little taste-testing will be in order, too.
Better yet, the event is absolutely free. No charge. And no registration required. Just show up with a sweet tooth.
The longer, gradually warming days - combined with the still-frosty nights - make early spring an ideal time to harvest maple sap. The continual change in temperature from below freezing to above causes the maples to pull water from the soil through their roots. Then during the warm daytime hours, temperatures above freezing cause pressure to develop within the tree.
When a tap hole is drilled into the tree's trunk, internal pressure forces the sap to flow out, much like blood from a cut. At commercial farms, the sap is drained via plastic tubing and pipelines to the production site called a "sugar house." But for the small-scale demonstrations at Red Oak, a simple plastic bucket is used to collect and transport sap after the tree is tapped.
On average, it takes 40 to 45 gallons of sap to make one gallon of pure maple syrup.
And don't be fooled by the grocery store variety syrups. When Aunt Jemima and Mrs. Butterworth wink at you from the shelf, it's a disclaimer, because theirs are mostly corn syrup with imitation maple flavor, and not the authentic stuff you'll get to taste at Red Oak.
Back to the school kids - one of them asked if drilling holes and drawing sap kills the beautiful tree - another great question from a bright, young mind.
In actuality, sap is a renewable resource, making maple syrup production a very sustainable activity because the tap hole captures a very small portion of the tree's sap. Under the right conditions, maple trees can live to be hundreds of years old.
Many "sugarmakers" in the leading syrup-producing zones such as Vermont, New Hampshire and northeast Canada are tapping the same trees that were tapped by the generations before them.
Just think - when one of these young schoolchildren returns to Red Oak a few decades from now for MapleFest 2029, they'll be able to tell their young ones a "when-I-was-your-age" story about seeing the same maple tree being tapped.
Those stories, like the legend of maple syrup, never get old.
Jeff Long is the public relations manager for the Fox Valley Park District. Red Oak Nature Center is at 2343 S. River St. in Batavia.
A group of young onlookers watches intently as sap is collected from a maple tree during last year's MapleFest at Red Oak Nature Center in North Aurora. The free event will take place Saturday at Red Oak, with live demonstrations and taste-testing of the sweet maple syrup that results from this centuries-old tradition.
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