Maples are such sociable trees … They’re always rustling and whispering to you. — Lucy Maud Montgomery
Sugaring season is the season when you tap the trees for sugar that turns into maple syrup. I’ve married someone from Vermont, so it’s an expression I kept hearing, and I’m like, ‘What is that? That’s just so beautiful.’ I like the idea it’s the very, very first murmurings of spring. — Beth Orton
The age-old tradition and livelihood of tapping maple trees for their sweetness is steaming up and about to synthesize into a two-day long Maple Fest at the Ashokan Center on March 26 and 27. Located on 385 acres of land, nestled into the Catskill Mountains, the Ashokan Center has been providing outdoor education and adventuring, hands-on learning including ‘sugaring’ and blacksmithing as well as a host of cultural, historical and dance classes, camps and community events for all ages since the 1960s.
In early spring, one of the most popular activities for visitors is taking a walk to the sugar shack where students hear about the history of maple sugaring and its roots in indigenous and colonial cultures and learn how to sustainably ‘tap’ a sugar maple tree and the various steps involved in turning that sap into syrup.
“We’ve held the Maple Festival every year for as long as I can remember,” said Ruth Ungar Merenda, the Director of Community Outreach for the Center. “We make it this big community event with live music, food, blacksmith demos and of course, a walk to the sugar shack!” As the festival has at times brought close to a 1000 people to the center, this year, they’ve decided to spread it over 2-days to allow for more people to enjoy it but not all at the same time.
“It’s a great time of the day, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and with the tickets that you buy online you get your pancakes and syrup made on site.”
There will be maple sugaring demonstrations throughout the day where people can walk to the shack and learn about the process, hopefully see the sap running from the trees and the steam pouring out of the shack. While connecting with the more-than-human world, as well as with friends and neighbors, is always something to celebrate, there is also a larger lesson at play that is not so sweet, but certainly cautionary.
The sugar shacks have been increasingly silent throughout the traditional sugaring season, one that gets shorter every year due to climate change. “For decades the sugar shack at the Ashokan Center was a noisy place from February to April,” said Ungar. The special apparatus for the making of maple syrup was simmering from the gravity fed sap lines that bubbled and gurgled with the evaporator steaming. While the shack still does its thing, and the students still come and are excited to learn about this conversion of sap to sugar to syrup, it can often sit quiet and still for several weeks of the year when it used to be in full swing.
According to Ungar, making maple syrup, a practice that originated hundreds of years ago by native Americans and has evolved into a multi-million-dollar industry spanning large swaths of the United States and Canada is now suffering from warming temperatures. The syrup is produced from the distilling of sap from the sugar maple, an indigenous tree of the Northeast. Regardless of how complex or simple the system is to collect sap and convert it to syrup, production requires specific environmental conditions including nights that drop down below freezing and days that that warm slightly above 32 degrees. The sap runs up the tree in the early spring as it comes slowly out of dormancy. Prior to the continued acceleration of global warming caused by human impact, sap ran freely from the end of February to mid-April. These conditions, according to Ungar, are now occurring for “a much shorter period of time, sometimes only a few weeks in February as our nights are warming…It’s easy to argue any one extreme weather event — an unusually strong hurricane, an arctic blast — is just an anomaly and not due to any long-term climate variation,” she said. “Increasingly, however, farmers, ski resorts, birders and anyone whose business depends on dependable seasonal fluctuations have observed consistent changes in how our environment is changing year by year.” The maple syrup industry is also among this list.
Ungar said that their shack operator has pointed out that the warming temperatures are even changing the taste of the sap, creating less sugar than before.
The intention of the festival is to be a locus for change and important environmental education while honoring and learning about the centuries-old sugaring tradition. There will be demomstratoms and guided or self-guided walks to the shack and throughout the grounds as well as an on-site blacksmithing demonstration. “There will be an opportunity to make your own project as well,” said Ungar. “And the live music is going to be excellent!”
To learn more or order tickets see https://ashokancenter.org/product/maple-fest-2022/
$15 General Admission; $7.50 ages 5-12; Free under 5. Lodging available!