Sugaring season began at Burlington's Rock Point School in February, when freshman Conor Southard and junior Jimmy Dollard each placed a hand on the trunk of a sugar maple. "We want to thank the maple trees for the sap they give us and the sweet syrup that we get to enjoy," said their history teacher, Gus Buchanan, who accompanied them. "It's a gift, both from the Earth and from the power of the tree."
The boys echoed their teacher's thanks, then cranked a hand drill into the maple and hammered in a metal spout, the first of some 200 spouts to be inserted by the 30 teens who attend the residential and day school.
Sugaring, long a tradition at the school, became part of the academic curriculum three years ago. In preparation for tapping trees, the kids study the history, culture, economic impact and how-tos of sugaring. Earlier this winter, they toured Swanton-based Leader Evaporator Company, which produces sugaring equipment. And now, said head of school C.J. Spirito, "we keep our fingers crossed that it is 20 degrees at night and 40 degrees in the day and the sap's running."
For nine days starting March 5, the school will welcome about 300 local children to tour its operation. Rock Point students will act as "maple ambassadors," teaching visitors — mostly preschool and elementary kids — what they have learned.
This is Stephyn O'Leary's fourth year in the program. "I just love it," said the senior, who wants to be a teacher someday. "I just love seeing their faces when they learn. Their eyes light up and they ask questions."
Terri Relyea, assistant director of the Children's Preschool and Enrichment Center in Essex Junction, plans to return for a tour this month with her preschoolers. On last year's tour, they tapped a tree then caught sap with their fingers to taste it.
If you were to ask the kids, they would say the trip's highlight was the maple sundaes they ate, Relyea said. But for her, it was watching high school students, rather than adults, interact with her preschoolers. "They're more connected in a way because they're closer in age to each other, and they want to get to know each other," she said.
Festivities wrap up on March 15 with a 5K run and maple brunch. Senior Macy Wood can't see why anyone would miss it. "What's not to like?" she asked. "We're taking something from nature and making it into sugary deliciousness."
Visitors that day can tour the school's 5-year-old post-and-beam sugarhouse, believed to be the only one operating in Burlington. The kids produced 70 gallons of syrup last year, most of which is served in the school dining room.
Rock Point's sugaring operation is traditional: No tubing connects the trees to the sugarhouse. Macy Wood's job last season was to lug the sap in buckets to the holding tank that moves through the sugar bush on the back of a pickup truck.
Is maple sugaring something Macy can tout on a future résumé? Maybe. More importantly, her instructors pointed out, she has mastered a skill. They hope she'll use the experience as a template for mastering other skills in college and in the workforce.
Besides, sugaring at Rock Point is about more than the syrup; it's about Vermont history, sustainability and helping kids become competent and confident. "It's just kept me on an even keel," said sophomore Nate Keeney of Starksboro. "Being in the woods is really nice."
HOW TO MAKE MAPLE SYRUP
A single maple tree can yield two to three pints of syrup per tap. To try making the sweet stuff from your own backyard, follow these steps from the University of Vermont Extension.You’ll need:
Cold nights (25 degrees or below) and warm days (40 degrees or above)
Food-safe buckets with lids
Large pot or pan for boiling
Where to find supplies:
Purinton Maple and Tree Farm, Huntington
D&G USA Inc., Fairfax
Drill a couple inches into the tree at a slightly upward angle. Use the hammer to tap a spout into the hole; hang the bucket. Trees between 10 and 18 inches in diameter take one tap; bigger trees can have two. Don’t tap anything smaller than 10 inches.
Collect sap daily. Treat it like milk; keep it under 40 degrees. As soon as possible, strain and boil it. You can do this on the kitchen stove, but you’ll need ventilation. Sap creates lots of steam and can peel off wallpaper! You can boil outside on a camp stove, gas grill or wood fire.
Speed things up by using a large, flat pan, which exposes a greater surface area. To de-foam boiling sap, add just a drop or two of vegetable oil.
Syrup reaches the correct density at 7.5 degrees Fahrenheit above water’s boiling point — but that temperature varies due to atmospheric pressure and elevation. Another way to determine density is with a hydrometer. Handle with care; boiling sap is extremely hot!
Filter syrup immediately. Felt filters work best, but you can also use several layers of cloth. Pack syrup in metal, glass or plastic containers when it’s hot (between 185 and 190 degrees.) Seal it. Lay it on its side for 10 to 15 minutes then cool completely. Keep sealed syrup in a cool location.
For more information, visit uvm.edu/~uvmaple/maplesugaringinyourbackyard.pdf