A fun outdoor activity for kids this time of the year is maple sugaring. If you live in the midwest or southern Canada you’re living in a unique zone of the world that can produce maple syrup by boiling down maple sap. It doesn’t matter if you have one or twenty Sugar maple trees in your yard, if you have access to any of these trees maple sugaring is a fun and easy way to get kids out during the late winter.
If you are unfamiliar with the maple sugaring process or how to even begin I would first suggest trying to identify the trees in your yard this summer. Sugar maples have one of the highest contents of sugar in their sap during the first part of spring, anywhere from 3-4%. If you are lucky enough to have Black maples they can contain up to 5% sugar. During the spring and summer you can easily identify Sugar maple trees by their shaggy, grayish bark; branches that grow on opposite sides; and leaves that have “U” shaped notches between five separate lobes. If you find that you have Sugar maples in your yard you can take the next step come February or March of the following year.
Visit your local hardware store or Tractor Supply store to see if they have spiles and sugaring buckets or bags. If you are having a hard time locating these materials you can always find them on Amazon. Once you get your sugaring materials measure the diameter of your spile so you can find the right sized drill bit. After matching your spile diameter to your drill bit take your kiddos outside on days that are warmer than freezing point with nights colder than freezing and drill a 2 inch deep hole into the side of your sugar maple tree. Then hammer the spile in just far enough that the bucket will be supported but not so far that you can’t get it out at the end of the season. An important thing to note is that you don’t want to over tap your tree. If your tree is smaller than 10 inches in diameter it will likely take too much of a toll on the tree and it could end up killing your beautiful tree. Each tap should theoretically yield about 10 gallons of sap on an average year so taking 10 gallons of leftover food from a small tree could be devastating. Another couple of things to note are that you want to keep the bucket low enough for ease of collecting; if the bucket is too high it’s going to be too hard to lift when full. Also, if you tap your tree year after year you will want to move to the right and up a few inches each year in order to avoid the scar tissue the tree will make in the previous hole (sap won’t flow through scar tissue). Give the sap a taste with your kids, they love to think that they can taste the slight amount of sugar and it’s fun to compare how quickly it’s dripping on different days.
Once you’ve tapped your trees make sure to check them regularly for sap collected. Take you kids out with buckets and let them bring some of the sap back to your collection tank or container. You’ll want to store your sap at a lower temperature, a container outside will work great. When you’ve collected enough sap and you’re ready to boil try to find a large pan that can be heated up outside to avoid making a large mess in your home. There are many books that can help with the boiling process so check some out to find out what would be easiest on your current set up.
If you don’t happen to have any of these trees on your property you could try another species including birch trees. The sap from birch trees doesn’t have as high of a sugar content as Sugar and Black maples so it will take more sap and a longer boiling time to make syrup but it is a very similar process. Another option would be to check out your local nature center or sugarbush to experience the process without all the hassle of doing at home. Good luck connecting with nature in a historical and traditional manner!