a Sweet Time for All
By Mike Lauterborn
(for Westport News)
Westport, CT – With temps hovering around 60 degrees and the feel of spring in the air, it was an opportune time to break out the tap… the sap tap that is.
Saturday afternoon March 5, Earthplace at 10 Woodside Lane hosted “Sap to Sugar”, an hour-long program demonstrating how tree sap becomes maple syrup and offering samples of the sweet liquid. Other features of the event included a campfire, hot chocolate, marshmallow toasting, a coloring craft and storybook reading. The program was led by naturalist Margaret Ardwin. About two dozen families attended.
“We’ve been doing this every year since 1960,” said Ardwin at the outset of the event. “Kids really love seeing the sap come out of the tree. The campfire is also popular. Today is warm so the sap should really be flowing.”
Earthplace was founded in 1958 as a non-profit dedicated to promoting environmental awareness. The facilities provide numerous opportunities to explore the natural world with interactive exhibits in the Natureplace Museum and over two miles of trails in the 62-acre wildlife sanctuary. The facility also keeps live birds of prey, reptiles and native animals.
For Sue Tobia of Norwalk, attending with daughter Sara, 4, and nephew Jonathan, 7, the program and facility was a real find. “We were looking for something to do on the weekend. This looked educational and fun, and Sara loves syrup. At breakfast, she has more syrup than pancakes. It will be great for her to see how it’s made. This is the first time we’ve been to Earthplace. It’s a hidden treasure.”
The O’Gormans – Matt, Melissa and their children Nolan, 8, and Kaden, 5 – looked forward to the tasting and were happy to be enjoying some warm weather. “Nolan loves maple syrup and wanted to come see how it’s made and try it. We’re getting a little hint of spring today with the warmth, so it’ll be nice to enjoy the outdoors.”
Canadian-bred Ardwin, who grew up making maple syrup on her family’s barbecue, gathered everyone around a campfire adjacent to the parking lot and gave some background about the sap to syrup process.
“Sap comes from sugar maples,” she explained. “We take the watery sap and boil it down so there’s more sugar than water. The sugar the tree made last year is now coming up through the roots. The sugar feeds the tree buds.”
Ardwin said Native Americans were first to discover sap. “They watched animals and woodpeckers feeding on it. Children found the sap frozen as icicles, broke them off and ate them.”
With drill in hand, the naturalist led the group to a sugar maple near the facility’s front entry. “When we tap, we drill about an inch or two into the tree and insert a spigot,” she said. “The tree doesn’t draw sap uniformly. The side facing the sun is going to be flowing more readily and will be the best place to tap.”
As she inserted the spigot, it immediately began to drip sap, and Ardwin encouraged children pressed near to sample it.
“It tastes like vanilla,” said Brynn Fleisig, 4, of Westport, attending with her mother, Wendy Giffords.
Ardwin directed the group back toward the campfire and to a picnic table where small plastic cups containing refined maple syrup had been placed. Elana Faiman of Weston and her son Aiden, 1, took advantage of the samples. “We have it every morning,” Faiman said, “with pancakes and French toast.”
Other attendees like Stephanie Shapiro of Weston and her children Sadie, 5, and Kyler, 10, sampled hot chocolate from dispensers at the table. Kyler found the program particularly informative, noting, “I learned that the sap from the tree is edible before it becomes maple syrup, and that syrup only comes from a sugar maple.”
While half the group sampled, the other half toasted marshmallows over the campfire or split off to quietly read a themed storybook. At each activity station, student volunteers provided assistance. Ardwin explained that there were 22 of these volunteers in total, from grades 5 to 12, comprising a unit known as Earthplace Junior Staff members.
“They come every Saturday for a natural history seminar, provide community service and do some volunteering for us, like helping at programs like this,” Ardwin said. “Most of the kids stay with me for seven or eight years.”
Ardwin stressed the importance of activities like the “Sap to Sugar” program. “A lot kids don’t get out to have fun outside. Very often, they go from the car to the house to the store. This gives them an opportunity to do things with their families and see that being outside is fun.”