Going to the Maple Sugar Time Festival in the Indiana Dunes is one family tradition I started when the kids were little, and since we missed it last year, my daughter insisted we not miss it this time around. Every year, for the first two weekends in March, the National Park Service sets up a short trail in the Indiana Dunes woods to demonstrate how maple sugar has been made by Native Americans all the way to how it is still done today. This picture shows how Native American tapped trees before metal tools and pots were available, using wooden tools, vessels made of bark, and maybe a clay pot.

See the steam rise 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.

Boiling down the sap got easier once pioneers arrived with their big iron pots, yet the method is 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. 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, but I remember early March dates when it was so cold the sap froze into sweet 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? Post a comment!
One cool tree.
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 holding the finished syrup are hung above vats where the syrup is progressively boiled down, so that they can warm in the steam and 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, and 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, and 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.