Short and Sweet

Short and Sweet

Did you know that humans have been tapping sugar maples to make syrup for at least 8,000 years? Or that sap is 98% water? Hamden fourth-graders know these and lots of other facts about maple sugaring thanks to Brooksvale Park, where the sugar shack is steaming and the taps are dripping.

About 10,000 fourth-graders have visited the sugar shack over the past 18 Februaries, Brooksvale park ranger Vinny Lavorgna says. Ask most any Hamdenite of a certain age range and they’ll tell you about it. But the shack isn’t just for kids. Anyone can stop by during an open house on March 17th to buy some syrup and learn how to identify a sugar maple, how a hydrometer works and how to know when the syrup’s ready.

The day I visit Brooksvale, off Route 10 in north Hamden bordering the Naugatuck State Forest, the forecast calls for temps in the 50s after a night below freezing—just the right weather for collecting sap. But at 10 o’clock in the morning it doesn’t feel even close to 50 in the “sugar bush”—the grove of sugar maples—above Brooksvale’s big red barn. It’s a morning to keep your hat down and your collar up, hands in pockets. The ground is snowless and soft, the sky gray, the bare trees louvering up and over the hill. Shepherd Glen Elementary School students wander among those trees with colorful measuring tapes, figuring out the circumference of trunks and, using the formula Brooksvale sugar maker Pete Laffin (pictured second) has just taught them, looking for trees big enough to tap.

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They’re excited about the biggest tree they find, but Laffin asks them to look at the bark—is it smooth and gray like the sugar maple? No, the kids agree. “What kind of tree are you?” Laffin asks, putting his ear to the scaly bark as if the tree will tell him. “Oak!” he announces. A few kids register their dismay.

“I can tap an oak tree,” Laffin tells them. “I can get sap from an oak tree. I can tap any tree and get sap from it, depending on what I want to use it for.” Oak sap works as a preservative, he says. Pine sap makes “the best—100%, will never break—glue you can possibly make.” But maples are the best for making syrup, especially sugar maples.

We’re standing in one of six sugar bushes in the park. One other is tapped, and four are resting. This is the only one where sap is still collected the “old-fashioned” way, with steel buckets catching the drip from steel taps. Taps manufactured today are made of recycled polycarbonate plastic with check valves that prevent germs, mold, bugs and other hazards from entering the tree. Tubes run from the taps into collection “buckets,” more like large water jugs, also made of plastic.

If you want to tap a tree the original way of the native peoples of Connecticut, Lavorgna says, you’ll hollow out a stub cut from a staghorn sumac branch. Earlier this morning, he gave each child a piece of staghorn sumac, and they tried their hands at hollowing it out with a metal tool made from a clothes hanger. The resulting wooden taps are souvenirs to take home, and I wonder how many of these 10,000 hollowed bits of wood are still stashed in kids’ bedrooms and old coat pockets all over town.

The Quinnipiac and other early peoples evaporated water from the sap they collected in a wooden trough by adding very hot stones to the liquid, causing it to boil and steam, Lavorgna told the kids. Now Laffin walks us down to the red sugar shack next to the barn, where more modern methods are at work. Smoke drifts from the shack’s little chimney, and its large windows are open so we can lean in to watch Laffin feed the fire with some wood we picked up along the way. (They’ll go through four cords this winter.) He pours a bucket of sap into the evaporator’s reservoir pan. It takes 40 gallons of sap to make just one gallon of syrup, and the evaporator must be watched constantly because you never know when the syrup will be ready. That’s the job of Laffin and barnyard manager Amy Kulikowski, who’s been manning the shack all morning.

Syrup-makers use all their senses to decide when the syrup is ready, Laffin tells the kids. They watch for the color to turn from clear and watery to amber and the steam to dissipate as the water evaporates. They smell its sweetness. They listen for the sound of a vigorous boil. Right now, we hear what Laffin calls a “nice, gentle boil like I’m making spaghetti.” He drums his hands on the pan to tell us what it will sound like when the syrup, which boils at 219 degrees, is almost ready. Then, of course, there’s the “distinctive taste” of the maple syrup. Laffin and Kulikowski also rely on a hydrometer to measure the water content and a thermometer to monitor the temperature.

As the fourth-graders and their teacher head back up the driveway to meet their bus, Kulikowski slides the sugar shack windows closed to retain the heat. It’s a damp, dark job tending the evaporator, but both she and Laffin seem to love what they do. And it won’t be for long. Maple sugar season lasts just a handful of weeks each year. The shortest season Lavorgna recalls was only three weeks long. In a good year, it’ll be six or seven.

The day is finally warming as Laffin and I head up the hill, too. There’s a promise of sun in the sky, and the promise of maple syrup bottled and ready for sale just a few weeks from now, straight from the Brooksvale woods.

Brooksvale Park
524 Brooksvale Ave, Hamden (map)
Maple Sugar Day: March 17, 10am-2pm
(203) 287-2669

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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