Fifty sweet years of maple sugaring at Kalamazoo Nature Center

The Kalamazoo Nature Center with its 1,100 acres of wooded rolling land and varied educational offerings is recognized as one of the top nature centers in the nation. And for 50 years it’s been celebrating the coming of spring with the Maple Sugar Festival. 
Before the first crocus has yet pushed its green spikes above the snow, before the icicles have yet fallen from rooflines, and long before the first robin has braved Michigan cold, rows of metal buckets hang from maple trees. Taps piercing the bark drip with a sweet sap and collect in the buckets. The maple trees know, and spring is stirring deep inside their trunks.

“Maple sap begins to flow once the temperatures begin to rise above freezing,” says Jason Byler, public programs director, Kalamazoo Nature Center.

At the Nature Center, preparations are underway for their annual Maple Sugaring Festival. This year’s festival will be sweeter than most, because the Nature Center is celebrating its 50 years of maple sugaring.

The two-day festival runs March 14 and 15, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and is free to members, $7 for non-member adults, $6 for seniors, and $4 for children who are 4- to 17-years old, free to younger children.

“The Maple Sugaring Festival is our biggest fundraiser of the year,” says Byler. “We normally see between 1,500 and 2,000 people during the two days of the festival and about 120 people become members. This includes both membership renewals and new memberships. When people sign up for a membership, we deduct the price of admission.”

According to the Michigan Maple Syrup Association, Michigan ranks fifth in the United States for maple syrup production. The history of maple syrup production dates back centuries ago, when Native Americans tapped maples for sap.

“At the Nature Center, we still have the Sugar Shack, which has been here for 50 years,” says Byler. The original structure, he says, has posts and a roof that are rotting with age. “We are hoping to build a new one, and the Maple Sugaring Festival will help fund that.”

Pioneer sugaring demonstrations will be held at the DeLano Homestead, the historic section of the Nature Center, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

“We will demonstrate how the sap was collected, boiled, until it evaporates into the syrup we know,” says Byler. Collecting and producing syrup has changed over the years, he says, using metal spiles rather than the wooden spiles of yesteryear. While sap was once boiled in large pans outside with the steam roiling off until the water evaporates, “today we use evaporators indoors. But it still takes a long time.”

Forty gallons of sap are needed to produce a single gallon of maple syrup. That, Byler says, hasn’t changed. “But Native Americans probably used a hatchet mark in the tree to get to the sap, and early settlers used small, hollowed-out sticks as spiles. More recently, we have been using plastic spiles with tubing that leads to a big pipe that collects the sap into a tank.”

Fewer buckets, more sap. And while wood was the fuel of choice in early years, today's evaporating pans are heated by natural gas or propane.

“Syrup made outdoors with wood has a bit more of a smokier flavor,” says Byler. “It’s darker, but most people, we’ve noticed, like a lighter syrup.”
Kalamazoo Nature Center does sell Michigan maple syrup during the festival, but it's not produced on site. Local farmers supply the maple syrup sold during the festival.

“We do talk about the difference between real maple syrup and the syrup you see on grocery store shelves made out of corn syrup with maple flavoring,” Byler says. “We talk about why there is such a price difference.”

Other activities at the festival include a pancake breakfast—with maple syrup, of course—from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. (for an additional fee); children’s activities and crafts; maple sugar tours that begin every 15 minutes; a live animal program featuring the great horned owl; guided hikes; ice cream with maple syrup (for an additional fee) and maple cotton candy (Byler warns it is addictive); horse-drawn wagon rides; blacksmithing, spinning, and fiber art demonstrations; and pioneer sugaring demonstrations.

“We also have several educational birds of prey programs during the festival,” says Byler. “The Nature Center has one falcon, four hawks, and four or five owls. This time of year the owls are courting, so we go on ‘owl prowls’ out in the woods, calling out to the owls to see if they will call back to us.”

A raptor crowdfunding effort is underway to raise funds for the birds of prey, with a goal of $15,000, supporting their care but also the special events, library and school visits made with the birds.

“Many of these birds are rescues,” Byler explains. “They would die in the wild. We work with rehabilitators on injured birds to return them to the wild if possible, but if the bird has something like a brain or eye injury, we keep them here.”

The birds of prey programs have helped to educate the community, Byler says, about their importance in the food chain. While once seen simply as nuisance birds, the Nature Center’s programs help people understand that they help to control the rodent population.

Education, in fact, is only one of the many values the Nature Center brings to the Kalamazoo community.

“We are focused on the community because we were started by the community,” Byler says. “The Nature Center is not a part of the parks system. We rely on memberships to keep us functioning and open year-round. We educate about nature and about how our environment is changing, and we get people outdoors.”

Along with its many educational programs, Kalamazoo Nature Center offers a preschool, Nature’s Way, and a summer camp program.

“We do what we can to enlighten people, keep kids healthier and adults de-stressed by getting them connected to nature,” says Byler. “It’s all part of our mission.”

Zinta Aistars is creative director for Z Word, LLC, and correspondent for WMUK 102.1 FM Arts and More program. She lives on a farm in Hopkins.

Photos by Susan Andress.
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