How maple syrup programs at Ryerson Woods are changing this season
"Can I tap the maple tree in my backyard?"
"How much sap does it take to make a gallon of syrup?"
Those are two common questions educators at the Lake County Forest Preserves hear each spring while leading wildly popular Maple Syrup Hikes through the Ryerson Conservation Area in Riverwoods.
"The simple answer is yes, you can tap your own maple tree, but it requires patience," Environmental Educator Jen Berlinghof said. "It is possible to tap most species of maples, and you only need a few items including a drill, a spout or spile, and a bucket or milk jug for sap collection."
After the sap is flowing, it must be boiled down to evaporate the water and concentrate the sugars.
"It takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup, and it takes many hours to get there. This is where the patience part really comes in, but at the end of it there is a sweet reward," Berlinghof said.
For the past four decades, educators and volunteers have led programs about turning sap from sugar maple trees into sweet maple syrup. On average, about 3,000 people visit Ryerson Woods each March with families, school groups and Scout troops to experience making syrup from the towering maple trees.
Due to the ongoing pandemic, this year's programming will be different.
"COVID-19 has made us rethink how we can safely offer our maple syrup programs," Director of Education Nan Buckardt said. "Though there will be no in-person programming this spring, people will be able to go on self-guided Maple Syrup Hikes through Ryerson, as well as take part in a variety of related virtual programs."
"There are plenty of opportunities to learn about the sweet science of tree physiology and maple sugaring through virtual experiences," Berlinghof said.
"This should be a popular program. We'll be showing participants how they can do this historic tradition themselves," said Berlinghof, who has been running the maple syrup programming for 17 years.
"Throughout March, teachers and Scout leaders are encouraged to reserve a 'Virtual Maple Syrup Field Trip,' where we use the maple syruping process to meet science learning standards and enhance classroom curriculum," Berlinghof said.
"If your family is ready to hit the trails, we are providing self-guided Maple Syrup Hikes for the entire month of March. Through informational signs, you'll learn the science behind how trees make sap and how we turn that sap into real maple syrup as you walk along the designated trail at your own pace," Berlinghof said.
The temperature dictates what you will see along the trail. The timing for tapping maple trees comes down to temperature ---- above freezing during the day but still below freezing at night ---- plus precipitation and the hours of sunlight in a day, Berlinghof said. Changing temperature is what causes the sap to surge upward from the roots toward the branches, where it helps the leaves grow and the buds bloom. Then in the summer, the leaves will produce more sap, which will settle back down in the roots come winter.
The sap does not rush out of the trees. "On the best day, it looks more like a drippy, leaky faucet," Berlinghof said.
In the 1980s, Ryerson Woods became known for its maple syrup programs. It is a location where climate conditions are right for maple syrup production, and where trees grow to the diameter and height that allows for tapping.
At that time, it was the most popular program the Lake County Forest Preserves offered.
"One March, I presented 90 school field trip maple syrup programs," Buckardt said.
Over the years, the range of educational program topics has increased for schools, and specifically programs that support Illinois State Learning Standards, Buckardt said.
"Though maple syrup programs, which focus on tree anatomy and physiology, remain strong for schools, it is no longer the program topic that gets booked the most." Predator Prey and Animal Adaptations are two more requested programs at this time, Buckardt said.
There are many reasons for the long-term popularity of the syrup programs. The time of year plays a big part.
"The days begin to turn warmer in March and there is a hope for the return of spring. People want to be outside more," Buckardt said.
Many adults bring their children because it is something they did when they were kids and loved it. "And, of course, there is the quirkiness factor," she said. "It is fascinating that poking a hole in a tree results in something delicious for breakfast."
In the past, part of the program has included making maple syrup at Ryerson Woods. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, syrup will not be produced this year.
"When the sap comes out of the tree, it's mostly water," said Berlinghof, explaining that the liquid is 98% water and 2% sugar until it boils robustly in an evaporator to the point where it changes to 66% sugar. "That's when it officially becomes maple syrup. The unique flavor stems from the caramelized sugars in the sap as it boils down."
Other questions kids always seem to ask is how much syrup is produced at Ryerson Woods and if it's for sale, Berlinghof said.
"We typically only make between five and 10 gallons of syrup each year, depending on the weather and length of the sugaring season." Most of the syrup produced was used to offer a sweet sample to program participants during the Maple Syrup Hikes.
Some syrup was reserved for serving at the annual Maple Syrup Dinner, an event designed to thank all the volunteers that help with education programs throughout the year.
"This would use up our annual syrup supply, so we had nothing left to sell to the public," Berlinghof said.
"The maple syruping programs are magical and enjoyed by so many," Berlinghof said. "I really like how we sneak fun science education into the historic tradition of maple syruping."
• Kim Mikus is a communications specialist for the Lake County Forest Preserves. She writes a bimonthly column about various aspects of the preserves. Contact her with ideas or questions at kmikuscroke@LCFPD.org. Connect with the Lake County Forest Preserves on social media @LCFPD.