WILLIAMSTOWN -- People from around the area gathered in a snow-covered Hopkins Memorial Forest for this year's MapleFest, a celebration of maple sugaring and a sign that spring is just around the corner.
Williams College students and forest caretakers offered demonstrations of sugaring techniques from past and present, and cooked pancakes, served with syrup made entirely in Hopkins Forest. Visitors explored the many facets of maple sugaring - a tradition that offers a window into the area's history and culture.
Surrounding Campbell's Coop - the forest's sugarhouse, built by Don Campbell in the 1980s when he was a student at Williams - and also nearby on Northwest
Sugar maples (Acer saccharum), red maples (A. rubrum) and black maples (A. nigrum) produce the sweetest sap, but sap from other trees, including birch and even shagbark hickory, can be turned into syrup in late winter and early spring. The sugar bush at Hopkins Forest consists only of sugar maples.
The sugar maple's range extends from Quebec in the northeast, west to Ontario, and as far south as Missouri and Tennessee. The trees are most common in New England, the Great Lake states, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York.
"A lot of our trees that are along Northwest Hill Road were planted in the days of Col.
In a natural stand, he said, sugar maples can live 200 years or longer, but the ideal range for sugaring is between 50 and 90 years. As a rule of thumb, trees are not tapped until their diameter reaches that of the top of a sugaring bucket (about 10 inches), since tapping younger trees can slow their growth.
Visitors at MapleFest took turns drilling shallow holes into nearby maples, and hammering in the short metal spouts. Hopkins Forest uses only traditional sugaring methods, relying on hand-powered tools and a wood-fired evaporation process.
The festival's traditional focus offered kids and adults a fun, hands-on experience and a chance to enjoy the outdoors.
The stuff of legends
The original process for extracting maple sap, used by Native Americans long before European settlers arrived on the continent, is not much different than the spout-and-bucket method still used today.
According to one Native American legend the explains how sugaring began, a village chief returned home after a long day of hunting and stuck his tomahawk in the trunk of a maple tree.
The Native Americans developed a technique of making V-shaped incisions in the maple tree's bark, then using reeds or bark to guide the sap into buckets. To concentrate the sap, they collected it in dugout logs and added hot stones. The process continued to be refined by European settlers who first encountered maple products in the 1600s.
Many North American tribes celebrated the first full moon of spring, which they called "Sugar Moon," with dances and rituals related to sugaring. This year's Sugar Moon is on March 27, following the vernal equinox on March 20.
At MapleFest, students demonstrated three evaporation methods: the dugout log method, the open-fire method and the more efficient pan method, where a flat, square pan is placed over a partially-enclosed fire. For its regular sugaring operation, Hopkins uses a multi-chamber evaporator, heated by a completely enclosed wood fire. The sap slowly passes through in a continuous stream, which helps regulate the process.
In a typical season, Jones said, the forest will produce 30-35 gallons of syrup, boiled down from between 1,500 and 2,000 gallons of sap (the ratio of sap to syrup is usually around 40:1). "Its' not a big operation," he said. "Some people will make that in an hour or two."
Ioka Valley Farm in Hancock, which held its own celebration of sugaring season on Saturday with a tour hosted by Wild Oats Market, now has 9,000 taps, and expects to double the 2,000 gallons of syrup it produced last year.
Going with the flow
For all the complexities of large-scale sugaring - minimizing heat loss, monitoring sugar content, handling vacuum pumps, tubing and reverse-osmosis machines (which speed evaporation) - the least-understood part of the process is what happens inside the tree itself.
"The freeze-thaw dynamic appears to be the driver in all this," said Jones, noting that the process is not the same among all vascular plants.
The sugar produced by maples in the spring and summer through photosynthesis is stored in the tree's roots as starch during the winter and reconverted to sugar in early spring, when the tree needs energy to produce buds. "So the sugar we're getting now was made last year," Jones said.
During sugaring season, daily temperatures typically fluctuate above and below freezing, which causes the tree to draw sap out of its roots. In colder temperatures, Jones explained, gasses inside the tree's vascular system contract, creating a vacuum that draws the sap up from the roots. When temperatures rise in the daytime, the gas and liquid expand, traveling upward.
While some syrup producers, including Ioka Valley Farm, use tubing and vacuum pumps to overcome some of the environmental restraints on sap flow (such as high air pressure) Hopkins still uses the old-fashioned spouts and buckets.
But even with vacuum pumps, tapping an adult tree does not typically remove enough sap to deprive the tree of the nutrients it needs, Jones said. "There's so much sap in a tree this time of year that even if a tree gives you 20 or 25 gallons during the course of a season, I think that's just a drop in a bucket."
A succession of uses
Like any agricultural resource, sugar bushes require careful management and a long-term outlook. Some of the factors affecting the health of sugar maples include diseases, insects, natural decline (which often begins in middle age), and roads and ditches, which can damage roots, create erosion, and pollute natural areas with road salt, engine oil and heat.
Although maples will tolerate shade, and will usually grow beneath established trees, Jones said, some thinning of sugar bushes is necessary to allow for new growth. That's an important issue in Hopkins Forest, where most of the sugar maples are around the same age - a result of Col. Hopkins' stewardship of the land almost 100 years ago.
"We don't think that Hopkins ever did sugaring, because he was a gentleman farmer and he didn't really want to be here" during mud season, said Jones. "He just liked the aesthetic. He liked to come here from the city and walk around in the woods [with] the nice golden maple leaves in the fall."
Because Hopkins desired an open, park-like environment, Jones said, he had most of the smaller trees removed. As a result, most of the trees now standing are between 80 and 100 years old.
"We have a few that are in that prime age of 50 to 90, but a lot of the old ones too are declining. So the way he managed, it served his purposes, but to keep a sugar bush going he would have wanted to let a few of the younger trees grow up," he said. "And now we're scrambling to make up."
Trees selected for removal - based on many factors, including the sweetness of the sap, which varies from tree to tree - are used for firewood, which in turn adds a smoky flavor to the syrup.
In forestry, choices made today take years or even centuries to play out. Planting new maples will usually take between 30 and 40 years before affecting the yield of a sugar bush. "So because of that, not a lot of farmers go around planting sweet maples," Jones said. "Most of them aren't thinking about their grandkids."
While Col. Hopkins may not have had sugaring in mind when he planted his sugar maples, the result nevertheless has been to allow for the preservation of a unique North American tradition that people can easily can enjoy from year to year.
The goal of MapleFest, said Jones, is to let the sugaring process speak for itself by inviting visitors to experience it directly. It's certainly convenient that the sugar bush is located just off the main trail, and also that it provides a colorful welcome to visitors in the fall - benefits that Col. Hopkins did likely have in mind when he planted his trees.
"What I like about MapleFest is there's really not much more to it than just showing them the maple sugaring process," Jones said. "It's very basic, but the idea is that this old fashioned process is still relevant today and there's a lot you can learn and a lot you can see."
The main attraction, he said, is usually quite consistent from year to year. "It always seems to me the biggest crowd is right around the pancake area."