Every year about this time, Argyle Lake State Park holds it's Maple Syrup Festival. I had the opportunity to attend the event about two weeks ago on a fine Saturday morning. The park has good stands of sugar maple trees(Acer saccharinum) well suited for tapping and collecting sap for boiling down for syrup or sugar. They have developed a great festival to display to the public how this old time tradition is carried out not only here but in many places across North America.
Upon entering the park, I was directed to the visitor's tent where information was available on the history and customs of this craft and where I also signed up for the hay wagon ride out to the maple grove. There was a campfire going, and volunteers were giving talks on this and other nature subjects. Maple syrup available for purchase as well as hot chocolate and coffee and cookies to eat while sitting around the campfire. Upon boarding the hay wagon, we were treated to a great talk by one of the volunteers as we made our way out to the grove. He explained the early history of collecting sap by Native Americans as well as early pioneer days and the traditions of Maple Syrup producers today. Upon arriving at the grove, our guide talked to the group about the process of tapping trees and then recruited a few of us as volunteers to help demonstrate.
We selected an appropriate tree according to instructions and then proceeded to insert a spile or tap and placed a clear plastic jug on the hook of the spile to collect the sap. Much to everyone's amazement, the sap flowed immediately into the container!
We all got a chance to taste it directly from the tree and yes - it was sweet. The process is generally slow, and a lot of sap has to be collected and boiled. We then went on to a building called the "sugar shack" to observe how that is done.
Steam was continuously billowing from the shack as a large fire was going under a steel drum where the syrup was being boiled down. It takes approximately 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup. So it is necessary to have quite a few trees available to tap for large production of syrup. However, a small grove would yield enough to top your pancakes for a unique taste of nature's sweet gold. Also available was maple syrup candy which is the product of boiling down further to the hard ball stage of sugar. This was a yummy taste treat for everyone to enjoy.
Congratulations to the staff and volunteers at Argyle Lake for making this event fun and educational. It is a worthwhile Illinois adventure for folks of all ages.
Rose Moore – Master Naturalist Intern