As the sap runs
By HANS MADSEN
FORT?DODGE – Nash Terry, 4, of Fort Dodge, found a little surprise in one of the sap buckets suspended from a maple tree at the Webster County Conservation Camp WaNoKi Education Center Saturday morning.
Something with more legs than anyone else on the walking tour of the woods.
“There’s ants in it,” he said as he peered into the bucket..
While that does happen, anything tiny with many legs is filtered out later once the process of boiling down the sap into syrup gets underway.
Even if they weren’t, Terry probably wouldn’t mind. He likes bugs.
“I like eating them,” he said.
The tour through the 80-acre park southeast of Fort Dodge was led by naturalist Karen Hansen who explained how the sap is collected as the group walked past the collection of buckets. Hollow taps are driven into holes drilled in the trees. The sap then flows into buckets with clear plastic lids.
They’re not ant proof, though.
Temperature is everything.
“The ideal temperature range is freezing at night and in the lower 40s during the day,” Hansen said.
The sap is only usable during a short window of opportunity.
“As soon as the tree’s buds pop open, you have to stop,” she said. “It stops making sugar and you’ll have bitter sap.”
Howard Jensen, of Fort Dodge, has been tapping trees and making syrup for decades.
“I have a tree I’ve been tapping for 40 years,” he said.
The secret to being able to do that, he said, is to move each year’s tap hole to a different location. The taps used are inserted a few inches into the tree’s outer cambial layer where the tap flows. The tree’s inner layers no longer have any sap flowing through them.
Once the sap is collected, it will have about 3 percent sugar.
To reduce that, and actually have syrup, the sap has to be boiled. Saturday’s event used a wood-fired model with a large flat pan on top.
That process has to be started fairly quickly.
“It has to be boiled down within three or four days,” he said.
Jensen said that it takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. It can be boiled further to produce sugar. For that, 45 to 50 gallons of sap are needed for one gallon.
The eight gallons of sap their boiler pan holds takes about three hours to boil down to syrup.
Making maple syrup has a long history.
“It’s what the pioneers used to do,” Jensen said.
Settlers had three sweeteners available to them: sorghum, honey and maple syrup or sugar made from sap.
There was an advantage to maple syrup sugar.
“It lasted forever,” Jensen said.
The annual tree tapping gave settlers a mental health boost after a long season of cabin fever.
It works for modern syrup-makers too.
“It keeps you sane,” Jensen said. “You’re outside three weeks before the end of winter.”
John Claus, of Fort Dodge, who made the hike and watched the sap boil for a bit, taps his own trees at home too. He started several years ago.
He’s having a slow season.
“It isn’t flowing like I think it should,” he said.
Claus is more than willing to do the work. Te results, he said, are worth it.
“It’s good,” he said. “It took a lot of sap, though.”
On Saturday, samples of both the raw sap – boiled slightly and sans ants – and finished syrup were on hand.
Abby Landwehr, 14, of Fort Dodge, tried both.
Of the sap, she said: “I think it tasted a little like water.”
The syrup got a thumbs up.
“It was really good, really sweet,” she said before recalling: “I gave up sweets for Lent. I don’t know if I should have had any.”
Despite this, she confirmed what experience syrup makers already know: their own product is much better than commercial syrup from the grocery store.
“I think it was better.” Landwehr said.
Jensen said his family would agree.
“We have the grandkids over for waffles,” he said. “They refuse commercial syrup and want grandpa syrup.”
The syrup even got a seal of approval from Jack, a chocolate lab that belongs to Ted Hugghins, of Fort Dodge. Jack got to lick the last few drops out of the sample cup after Hugghins was done.
Jack wagged his tail.
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