Going to the Maple Sugar Time Festival in the Indiana Dunes is one family tradition I started when the kids were little. Since we missed it last year, my daughter insisted we not miss it this time around. At the end of winter, the sap rises in the trees as they prepare for spring. That is the time to tap the sugar maple trees for their sap, which contains about 1 to 5% sugar. That’s not enough for their sap to taste really sweet but definitely enough to boil it down to create syrup.

Every year, for the first two weekends in March, the National Park Service sets up a short trail in the woods of the Indiana Dunes to demonstrate how maple sugar has been made through time, from the Native Americans all the way to how it is done today.

This picture shows how Native Americans tapped the sugar maple trees before metal tools and pots were available, using wooden tools, vessels made of bark, and maybe a clay pot.

Steam rises as a stone, heated in a wood-burning fire, is placed in these wooden troughs. Native Americans would probably have had several troughs like this, in decreasing sizes, to “boil” down the sap.

Obviously this is an arduous process, but it yielded them dark crystallized chunks of sugar.

Those were valuable calories at the end of winter, when supplies were low and nothing was growing yet. They were easy to transport and didn’t spoil.

Boiling down the sap got easier once pioneers arrived with their big iron pots, yet the method was essentially the same.

 

Here a park ranger “tests” the syrup.

Over time, people have figured out that the ideal consistency for maple syrup is 66% sugar.

Less sugar makes it more likely to spoil. More sugar will have it crystallize, which is what the Native Americans preferred. These days we have fancy tools to measure sugar content; but if you’re doing it the old fashioned way, you can only go by the syrup’s color.

A jar of maple syrup, made the pioneer way. Trial and error got it to the right consistency.

I loved this pioneer “kitchen” of containers and utensils lined up in the open air.

This year temperatures were in the high 60s for Maple Sugar Time. However, I remember early March dates when it was so cold the sap froze into icicles coming out of the trees.
Rangers like to ask the kids why a lid is put on top of the sap buckets. Any idea? See down below…
My favorite shot from this trip, and it took me about ten shots to get it. This is inside the sugar shack at the Chellberg Farm, where the owners used to make maple syrup during the Depression Era.

The glass bottles for storing the finished syrup are hung above the steaming vats where the syrup is progressively boiled down.

They need to warm in the steam so they won’t burst when the hot syrup is poured into them.
The Sugar Shack “kitchen”
Sap Buckets
The Sugar Shack from the outside; a less romantic shot, but it gives you a feel what the festival is like, including modern times equipment like the John Deere truck.
The kitchen inside the Chellberg Farmhouse is restored to about Civil War times. A ranger was baking cookies, demonstrating various recipes with maple sugar. Quite a different smell from the wood burning fires outside!
I always wish I knew more about trees. This list of Indiana Dunes trees would be a good place to start.
Of course we went on a hike, too, and came across this old farm equipment in the naked forest.
*Lids on sap buckets: To keep out the snow! Or rain…