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a delicious sticky mess

Today we spent the better part of the morning at Pilcher Park in Joliet, IL learning about how maple syrup is made. This is a popular seasonal program at the park where they actually tap their sugar maples and produce the syrup on site. It was good fun. As I understand it, the whole process begins in early to mid February when the trees are tapped. The tree has to be at least 12 inches in diameter before it is mature enough to tap. That’s about 30 years old. Larger trees can take more taps. When done properly, the tree is not harmed. Once tapped about three inches deep, a spile (or spout) is attached and a five gallon bucket is hung from it to catch the sap as it drips out. As long as temperatures are above freezing, the sap will drip anywhere from a half gallon to five gallons a day from each spile. That sounds like a lot, but keep in mind it takes about 40 gallons of sugar maple sap to make one gallon of syrup. (The sap is about 95% water.)

As the sap is collected at the park, it’s poured into a larger tank just outside the “sugar shack.” Going into the tank it’s filtered and then flows into the “sugar shack” itself where it finds its way to the evaporator. As we opened the door to enter the sugar shack, it was like walking into a dream. We could barely see as the room was filed with sweet smelling steam of the water boiling off the sap. The kids all gathered around to learn about the process of reducing the sap down to syrup and even got to sample a bit right there.

After checking out the sugar shack, we went for fun winter hike to work up our appetites for what was to come after that–a delicious pancake breakfast with 100% maple syrup of course. As if all that wasn’t enough, after breakfast the tour continued. This time, we learned about the animals of the park’s nature center–focusing mostly on turtles, tortoises, snakes, and the center’s prized red-tail hawk Nemo.

We had such a good time, when the tour was over, Chris, Aidan, and I decided to do some more hiking. You can’t beat 39 degrees and sunny in February. It was a great morning. Time well spent. Check out the photos above if you haven’t already.

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