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updated: 3/15/2011 11:37 AM

Red Oak Nature Center explains maple syrup process

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  • Margaret Gazdacka, left, of the Red Oak Nature Center, shows an audience of young onlookers how a maple tree is tapped. Hourly demonstrations like these will be held Saturday during MapleFest at Red Oak.

      Margaret Gazdacka, left, of the Red Oak Nature Center, shows an audience of young onlookers how a maple tree is tapped. Hourly demonstrations like these will be held Saturday during MapleFest at Red Oak.
    Fox Valley Park District


The adults could not have asked a more relevant question than that posed by a curious young boy.

As our group trekked through the woods last March at the Red Oak Nature Center, he wondered aloud, asking the question to which we all wanted an answer.

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"How do you get maple syrup out of a tree trunk?"

Glad he asked.

We'll all be able to find out at Red Oak Saturday, March 19, 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 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. 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 fluctuation in temperatures from below freezing to above cause 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 because theirs are mostly corn syrup with imitation maple flavor, and not the authentic stuff you'll taste at Red Oak.

Back to the group of 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; maple syrup production is a highly 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 many times by 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. Contact him at

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