Maple Syrup Day a cure for cabin fever at Hartwick Pines State Park

Craig Kasmer leads visitors to the sugar bush at Hartwick Pines State Park on Maple Syrup Day.

April 5, 2015

Not a lot of people associate March with state parks, yet the last Saturday in March is one of the biggest days of the year at one of Michigan's premier state parks. At Hartwick Pines State Park, Maple Syrup Day attracts hundreds of visitors at a time of year when a handful is a more likely number.

"It comes at the end of winter when people are tired of being cooped up and are ready to get out," said Craig Kasmer, the Department of Natural Resources' lead interpreter at the 9,700-acre park near Grayling. "When we've held this event and it's been 45 degrees out, we've had 700 people. Last year, when it was freezing, we had 300."

Visitors to Hartwick State Park check out a pan of boiling sap being made into syrup.It was in between those extremes this year (cold early, but sunny and a little warmer in the afternoon) and there was a lot of enthusiasm for the annual celebration of a Michigan tradition that predates settlement. Native Americans made syrup long before Europeans made it to Michigan.

About 500 folks were on hand for the daylong event, which included demonstrations of the syrup-making process (from tree tapping to sap boiling), a film, a slide show/lecture, and the opportunity to buy Michigan-made maple syrup.

Kasmer led groups of visitors along a path through the woods to some of the maple trees at the park, which are more than a century old. Using modern tools, he tapped trees, driving spiles (spouts) through the bark and into the sapwood with a hammer, and then hanging a bucket on a hook to catch the sap.

Hartwick Pines State Park interpreter Craig Kasmer gets a youngster to help him tap a maple tree."On a good day, with below-freezing temperatures at night but warm during the day, you can fill up a bucket every day," Kasmer explained to the crowd, which included youngster, oldsters and everyone in between. "But how much sap you get depends on a lot of things. It depends on the weather, the elevation of the tree, how much sunlight hits it, how thick the forest is. On cloudy days you can still get sap flow, but not as much as on a sunny day."

Throughout the tree-taping demonstrations, which he conducted every hour, Kasmer invited youngsters to help drill the 2 1/2-inch-deep hole into the tree trunk with a hand drill, or by using a hammer to tap - "You call it tree tapping, not tree pounding," Kasmer said - the sap spouts into the tree.

"If it was warmer out, you'd see some sap coming out when the pile driver is hit with a hammer," Kasmer told his morning visitors. "It would spray out. You might get some on your face."

By afternoon, Kasmer had eliminated that explanation from his delivery; the sap started flowing as the mercury rose.

It takes about 40 gallons of sap from a sugar maple (or from a black maple, which is closely related) to make a gallon of syrup. But many other maples - notably silver maples and red maples - produce sap that can be made into syrup, it just generally takes that much more sap (maybe 60 gallons) to make a gallon of syrup because of reduced sugar content.

Steam evaporating from a pan of sap on a wood stove fills the air at Hartwick Pines State Park.Still, the sugar content of the sap varies from tree to tree within the same species. In some cases, a good red maple might produce sap with higher sugar content than a poor sugar maple.

Outside the Hartwick Pines State Park's visitor center, park historian Ken Pott kept an old, rectangular wood stove stoked. Atop the stove, a pan of sap was steaming. It takes eight or nine hours of boiling to convert the clear, watery sap into the thick amber-colored syrup, Pott explained.

Pott said that making maple syrup is an American tradition, one that was later adopted in Europe after colonialists learned it from the Indians. Making maple syrup is pretty much limited to the Midwest, Northeast and southeastern Canada.

A young man helps Hartwick Pines State Park interpreter Craig Kasmer pound spout into maple tree.Not far from Pott's station, Russ Kidd, a retired forester from the Michigan State University Extension Service, manned a table that exhibited many syrup-making artifacts and included some containers of fresh maple sap for visitors to sample. It tastes like water with just a hint of sweetness.

That's because most sugar maples boast sap that's only 2 to 2.5 percent sugar, Kidd explained, though some individual trees produce much sweeter sap. The amount of sap needed to make syrup can be determined by dividing the percentage of sugar content into 86, Kidd said.

"Michigan ranked eighth nationally in commercial syrup production in 2014 with 91,000 gallons," Kidd said. "We could produce more; Michigan has the trees. Vermont, Maine and New York are the big three syrup producers."

Production in 2014 was a little better than average, but well down from 2013 when Michigan produced a record 148,000 gallons, Kidd said. That's because the weather was better the previous winter.

"In 2012, when we had a real fast warm-up in spring, we had 18 days of sap flow," Kidd said. "In 2013, when we had a gradual warmup, we had 32 days of flow."

Kidd, who worked with the commercial syrup industry during much of his career, said maple trees are ready to be tapped when they're about a foot in diameter at chest height.

"A 16- to 20-inch diameter tree can support two taps," he said. "Giant trees can have three or four taps."

Each hole yields up to five gallons of sap over the course of the season, Kidd said. That 91,000 gallons of syrup produced last year came from 430,000 tap holes, he said.

Sap tappers know to start collecting for the year when they see squirrels gnawing on the bark, Kasmer said. "The squirrels are chewing the trees to get the sap."

Syrup-making season lasts until the trees begin budding out. When that happens, the sap begins to get cloudy and bitter and no amount of boiling in the world will turn it into the good stuff.

"You stop making syrup then because it's no longer worth it," Kasmer concluded.

To learn about other natural resources education and outdoor recreation programs and events coming up this season at Michigan state parks, visitor centers, historical museums and field sites, visit the DNR website