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Thursday, 27 March 2014 00:00

Despite the slow drip, a sure sign of spring

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Welty Center Director Lena Verkuilen gives a sap boiling demonstration on an old stove to a group of students from Gaston Elementary School in Big Hill Park just outside the cookhouse. The students were allowed to sample the sap as it cooked. The sap is mostly water before being cooked down, and only about 2 percent sugar.  Welty Center Director Lena Verkuilen gives a sap boiling demonstration on an old stove to a group of students from Gaston Elementary School in Big Hill Park just outside the cookhouse. The students were allowed to sample the sap as it cooked. The sap is mostly water before being cooked down, and only about 2 percent sugar. Ian Gronau/staff

WALWORTH COUNTY SUNDAY -- Statistics won’t be available until the official end of the season, but early indications show that 2014 may come up short, especially compared to last year, in terms of maple syrup production in Wisconsin.

Last year, maple syrup production hit a 20-year high in the state, but a bitter cold winter and lingering cool temperatures have delayed and shortened the season while decreasing potential yield. That said, the region will continue its annual maple syrup celebrations unabated in an attempt to have some family fun and communally enjoy the natural treat.

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Although the Stateline falls at the southern most expanse of maple syrup territory and the state hovers around the fourth and fifth place producer in the country, the breakfast staple is still very much a part of our regional heritage.

 

 

It’s something the Welty Environmental Center takes great pleasure in celebrating every year. This weekend, they will be convening at Big Hill Park in Beloit for the annual Maple Sugar Festival.

"This is something that the Welty Center has done for nine years. It’s an annual tradition celebrating the end of the maple sugar season," said center Director Lena Verkuilen. "We come out here every spring to Big Hill Park and tap the trees and do it as a demonstration for all the schools in the School District of Beloit. At the festival. we have the demonstration going on so you can still see."

Verkuilen explains that they usually tap the maple trees during the last week in February. This time of year usually provides the optimum conditions, which are temperatures above freezing during the day and below freezing at night.

"The freeze/thaw actually helps push the sap through the tree, and the sap is going to be sweet because what the tree is doing is sending energy up for the new leaves and buds," Verkuilen said. "As the buds grow into leaves the sugar in the sap begins to break up into starches; it will change the sap from sweet to bitter. This year, instead of starting collecting sap at the end of February like we usually do, our first day was March 10."

The Welty Center taps about 12 trees for demonstrations and samples for visiting students, so the seasonal conditions won’t take the toll that it might on local commercial operations.

If you happen to miss Maple Sugar Festival at Big Hill Park, there are more opportunities to get out and celebrate the end of syrup season in the area. Covenant Harbor in Lake Geneva is hosting its annual Maple Fest on March 30 from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

"MapleFest is an event for the community, it exists to let people know about our camp and celebrate the beginning of spring," said associate director of Covenant Harbor, Eric Anderson. "We have an all-you-can eat breakfast day showcasing the syrup we have here on site. We have lots of activities for kids. We expect to have about 1,200 to 1,500 guests come through."

Covenant Harbor taps a large number of trees, about 150, on its property on the lake so they can provide the syrup for the breakfast themselves.

Director of outdoor education and resident syrup guru Peter Hatlestad was a bit concerned about the season’s late start, but is looking forward to the traditional celebration. He’s not sure about this year’s yield yet, but on a good year the camp produces about 30 gallons of syrup.

"It’s a little bit later in the year than we like, by this time of year we are usually starting to wrap things up down here. But now we are just getting started, we are about two weeks behind normal," Hatlestad said. "We’ve been doing this for a long time. Maple Fest started in the 1980s and then we stopped for about four years in ’97 and started back up in 2001."

Edwards YMCA Camp and Retreat Center in East Troy also will hold its annual Maple Syrup Day from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on April 5.

The camp has been holding its celebration for 10 years and performs tree tapping and sap boiling demonstrations for local schools.

"April 5 is our Maple Syrup Family Fun day; it started as a demonstration to show how to get maple syrup from tap to table. Then we started incorporating activities for the families and it became an event," said Edwards YMCA Executive Director Jody Heimos. "It’s a great opportunity for kids to see all the work that goes into harvesting maple syrup and shows them the amazing things that nature can provide for us."

Heimos says that the camp usually taps around 75 trees and averages 800 gallons of sap, which boils down to roughly 20 gallons of syrup. So far this year, they’ve only drained about 80 gallons of sap, but Heimos remains hopeful.

"Weather is always the main issue," Heimos said. "This year because of how cold it has been and how deep the frost was it’s not moving as fast as we’d like it. We’ve got pretty good weather in the forecast, so hopefully over the next week we can collect another couple hundred gallons of sap."

Vermont might produce 40 percent of the nation’s syrup, and remarkably about 6 percent of the world’s supply on its own, but Wisconsin is still proud of its own contribution to the delicious natural resource stockpile.

The sweet substance has seeped its way into our regional culture, and all the local celebrations are a great opportunity to head out and get a refresher course on how it’s made. It’s also a great opportunity to get a sample of fresh out of the tree syrup, because for as many times as we’ve all tasted it, it still has the capacity to surprise us.

"The thing that always amazes people is that there is no sugar that we add," said Verkuilen. "The tree makes all the sugar. We just get rid of the water. Even my husband says every year, ‘I can’t believe a tree made this.’"

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