So Full of Sap

If you have been following my blog, you may have noticed a recent trend. The classroom has been immersed in making Maple Syrup. Yesterday we pulled out the last of the taps and as I am typing, the last pot of sap is boiling down.

A sight not commonly seen on an Elementary Playground.
Three sap seasons ago the Founder and Director of the school asked me, “How come you have not tapped the Sugar Maples along the driveway?” For one thing I thought that this process was a bit too dangerous to take on with the Lower School and secondly I knew nothing about how to go about this process. I proposed making syrup to the class and not to my surprise, they were very eager to begin this process. We read books, watched videos and I talked to people that could help us start this process. Our first year, we put in ten taps along the driveway and boiled the sap using a propane burner in the parking lot and the electric stove in our classroom. I soon realized that this was an intense process-there were many days when our room felt so stuffy due to the steam. During our first year, we even got to practice “Fire Drills”. I soon learned that sap can go from almost done to done and burned very quickly. I also learned that if the pot was too small the sap will boil over, land on the electric burner turn to sugar and catch fire. Lesson learned. We were also swimming in sap, who knew that it would take forever to boil down sap in lobster pot? To solve this problem, we simply roped off a portion of the faculty parking lot and added two more propane burners. It was going great, I could peek out the windows and look across the playground and see the steam rising from the pots. There was one day, when I looked out the window and there was no more steam, it looked more like smoke. I ran across the playground to discover the all of the sap had boiled away and there was no longer a bottom to the pot. The pot got so hot that it melted, the entire bottom of the pot was in a pile of liquid metal on the ground. Fear kicked in, what if the liquid metal dripped back down the propane valve and in moments, I would have an exploding propane tank in the faculty parking lot of our school…not good press. Thankfully, my mind got too carried away and that did not happen. What did happen is that we were done for the year- way too stressful. Propane burners and elementary school aged children do not mix well. The first year we made enough syrup to send a small portion home with each child, give a small jar to our Founder and have a pancake party.

As the snow melted, we were ready to start our second year of making Riley Gold Syrup. The name stemmed from an incident where one of the children spilled a bucket of sap and another child said, “Don’t you know it takes 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup, that stuff is like gold.” For the second year I was pretty sure that there must be a better option than propane. I searched the internet and found a photo of a home made boiler using a 55 gallon drum. The photo facilitators husband said that he could make one of them for the school. Now we had 25 taps and a safe way to boil. We turned our sandbox into a make shift Sugar Shack minus the actual shack. The children took turns wearing fire resistant gloves and kept the fire going all day long. I loaded up the wood stove and it would boil all night. We made enough syrup to have an ice cream party, a pancake party, send a bit home and raffle off 5 pints. A great success and at the end of it all I thought that next year we could do more.

Starting in September I joined the Maple Trader website and read a great deal about how to be more efficient. I decided that to take this sap experiment one step further. Every third Sunday in March sugar houses across the state open their doors for Maine Maple Sunday. I contacted the Maine Maple Producers Association and asked if our school could be on the tour. Despite not having a Sugar House, we were on the tour. They were pleased to know that children did most of the work using very primitive methods of sap collection and boiling. Now the pressure was on. We had to make enough syrup to give plenty of it away and we had to have enough sap stored so that people could actually watch the process. We tapped our first trees in late January since there was a January thaw. We also put in 50 taps, our most ambitious year! One of the families also donated an old wood stove so that we could boil more at one time. I also found two giant steel cooking woks- each one of them could hold 7 gallons of sap. Now our sandbox was filled with a giant 55 gallon drum wood stove, a small kitchen wood stove and two open fire pits made from cinder blocks for the woks and the perimeter of the sandbox was surrounded by chords of wood. Everyday the class went out with their five gallon buckets and hauled in the sap. Once there was snow on the ground, it got a bit easier to haul the buckets using our sleds. And then the snow was gone and we were trudging through mud with a Civil War Ammo cart with giant metal wheels. The kids in my class worked hard! They hauled and stacked the firewood as well as kept the fires going all day. I bought a child sized ax and many recess were spent with children taking turns splitting firewood. Every morning I would arrive at school at 7 and start the fires. When we were not out collecting sap, we were in the classroom filtering sap or making labels for the pint sized mason jars. As Maine Maple Sunday approached, the kids got excited and I got so nervous. What if no one showed up?

As part of our Math Cooking Class the children prepared food to give out during Mane Maple Sunday. They made Maple Cookies, Maple Bread, Maple Roasted Root Veggies and everyday they made sure that we would have enough ice cream for the visitors. Needless to say that we made sure to sample everything! We also started to paint Fact Signs about maple syrup around the campus and we used a software program to make a map of our taps. Everything was falling into place nicely- the sap was flowing, the children were excited and I thought- Oh damn, what if no one shows up? I had live music lined up, my family was coming from New Jersey, my wife’s family was coming and “I hope people show up.” We had about 6 gallons of sap made by the time Maple Sunday rolled around.

One of the wok boilers..makes a nice smokey flavor.
I arrived on campus at 6 30 in the morning with a giant to-do list in my head. My support team (my family, in-laws, wife, brother and nephews) all started to arrive around 9. Everyone had a list of chores; put up Fact Signs, start building the cooking fire for a cookout, spruce up the place, make an art project, get the ice cream and syrup ready, go to the grocery store and Shit…what if no one shows up? At 10:30 a few people started to arrive and then HOLY KRAP….there was a non-stop line of cars pulling in the drive way. It was all becoming one blur. One of the parents from school had to make two runs to the grocery store because we ran out of hot dogs, burgers and ice cream. People just kept coming! There were kids everywhere..all over campus. I encouraged people to take a tap map and a five gallon bucket and tour the grounds collecting sap along the way. At one point, all of our five gallon buckets were full of sap and so were all of the pots and woks! There were a few families that stayed on campus for the entire afternoon. We gave away all 6 gallons of syrup (with a suggested donation) in no time. We had to take syrup orders. We went through 8 gallons of ice cream, three dozen cookies, three loaves of bread and a countless amount of burgers and dogs for a dollar each. It was a whirlwind and thank goodness people showed up.

Maine Maple Sunday 2013..and we thought nobody would come.

Everyone I talked to prior to Sunday said that we could maybe expect 40 – 50 people. By the end of the day we estimated that over 300 people visited our Riley Gold Syrup operation. We kept collecting and boiling until the sap slowed down and frankly, we got very tired of emptying sap buckets. In the end, we made close to 12 gallons of syrup. Children ages 4 -9 did most of the work- we hauled approx. 480 gallons of sap using sleds and a metal wheeled Civil War Ammo cart. We boiled 480 gallons of sap using an old wood stove, a home made drum wood stove and two woks boiling on open flames in the sandbox. Next year…who knows what will be next, but there are a lot of Maples on our campus.

Hopefully next year we will have a sugar shack and an evaporator in addition to our Sandbox Setup -this way we can put in more taps and make more syrup and raise more money. More people will visit our campus and more families can come to Maine Maple Sunday and celebrate with us.

The Fact Signs…helpful, informative and a great way to practice writing.

Here is the our Map of the Taps.