Sugaring Sap and Syrup in the Snowy Swamp: Great Swamp Outdoor Education Center, Chatham, NJ

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The view from the wildlife observation deck off the orange trail at the Great Swamp Outdoor Education Center.

I always figured that Vermont and Canada had pretty much cornered the market on maple syrup. Which is pretty much the case. But New Jersey has a maple sugaring season, too – granted, around here it’s much shorter than it is to the north.

I learned a few things about maple sugaring in late January, when I headed down to the Great Swamp Outdoor Education Center in Chatham for a short group hike and a maple sugaring demo.

The center, near where Essex, Union and Morris counties come together, is part of the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.

In the education center property, there are five blazed trails – red, green, blue, orange and yellow – going through the woods at the center, with boardwalks over the marshier sections of the trails. The trails add up to about 1.7 miles. Needless to say, these are not intense trails, but rather, the sort of walks where you can amble at your leisure, binoculars in hand. The orange one will take you past a wildlife viewing deck overlooking a largish pond – iced over, of course. Near the red trail, you’ll find a circle of benches for outdoor lessons and a reed wigwam with a firepit inside.

There’s a very nice sign near the wigwam called “Prayer of the Woods,” a tree’s appeal to man to treat the woods with care.

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The Prayer of the Woods.

Spotted some deer tracks in the snow, and heard a few species of birds overhead, but it’ll be a different story in the spring once the migratory bird species start coming home – as I write this, I’m longing to see red-winged blackbirds and orioles again.

We’d just had, the week before, a blizzard that dumped two feet of snow on the area. A few days of 50-degree temps had helped melt it down, but it was still kind of deep as of Jan. 31. It was also packed down rather firmly, which had both its advantages and disadvantages: you didn’t have to high-step your way through it the way you would with fresh powder, but on the other hand, packed snow during a thaw raises the risk of slipping. I’d neglected to bring my Yak Trax, but I found that by digging my boot heels into the snow, I was able to keep my balance pretty well.

So that was the hiking. Now for the maple sugaring part.

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GSECO staffer Stephanie Queirolo gives a talk about the history and science behind maple sugaring.

If you look around at several of the trails closer to the center building, you’ll see maple trees with metal stiles and sap buckets attached to them. This time of year in New Jersey is a key sugaring time because the temperatures are below freezing at night, yet above freezing during the day.

Later on in the afternoon, the education center held a demo on how to collect sap and sugar it into maple syrup. This is an activity that they do every weekend during sugaring season; it’s best to sign up well in advance because you see a lot of families with kids, and scout groups, come in for this.

The talk was presided over by Stephanie Queirolo, one of the naturalists on the center staff. She began with a history of maple sugaring in New Jersey, starting with the Lenni Lenape tribes and then with the European settlers to the area. Then she moved on to a discussion of the biology of maple trees and how to identify them, especially through the bark and the branches; maples have opposite formation branches, while most other deciduous trees around here have alternate formation branches.

(We learned a very useful acronym on how to identify opposite formation trees: MAD Horse. That’s Maple, Ash, Dogwood and Horse Chestnut.)

Outdoors, we saw the proper way to drill a hole into a tree with a brace and bit (electric drills really aren’t preferable for this), and to hang a stile and bucket, and then we got to go over to the sugaring shack and watch the evaporator boiling and steaming. It takes a LOT of sap – several gallons, in fact – just to get one bottle of maple syrup. So that’s something to think about the next time you have waffles.

(On another note, I noticed that one of the churches near the education center entrance was offering a pancake breakfast that weekend. Perhaps they got some of their syrup from the Great Swamp’s trees? Who knows?)

On March 4, there will be the Maple Sugar Festival – so I’ll see if I can make some time out of my schedule and check it out. Should be pretty sweet! (Yes, pun definitely intended.)

For further reading:

Great Swamp Outdoor Education Center – Morris County, NJ Park Commission

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Categories: Ecology, Food and drinks, History, Walking, Wildlife | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

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