Sunday, March 17, 2013

Sugar Camp Days

There are several maple syrup festivals within an hour of our house this weekend. We decided to go to Bendix Woods Park's Sugar Camp Days as we've never visited that park AND just found out it had another nature center. How did we miss that? My 8-year-old seems to have current plans to visit all the nature centers in the United States this summer . . . it might take us a few summers to reach that goal! He said we'd be really smart if we do! I saw the signs for Family Activities and knew this was the place we should be. My husband was there sick, I had the baby strapped to my back, and the boys were anxious to explore--this would be the right place! The event is sponsored by St. Joseph County Parks. They have several good activities and parks to visit.

I will say my only complaint (and it was really just an opportunity to educate on appropriate risk, right?) with the morning in general was walking up before these signs. My boys were walking in the grassy area instead of the parking lot and there were woods and a slight depression nearby. One of the parking attendants (most likely a volunteer) told them to get away from the edge. I looked and didn't see anything I was concerned with as far as risk. I asked him, "What edge? The edge of what?" I said that I didn't see anything dangerous for them to fall into in the area. He apologized. I'm okay with a little healthy RISK for my children, though I truly didn't see risk in the situation. In fact, when they moved back into the parking lot because they were told they were too close to the edge, my oldest fell down on the asphalt and scraped his knee. He wasn't in a good mood for at least a half hour--I think I'll keep with the risk of the edge of the woods, thanks! We are still very grateful for the many volunteers who made this possible.

I noticed these interesting little cones on the tree, much like my three-year-old. But then he found the nest sitting right there!

There were several people with a living history camp from Brothers of the Wind. One was showing his wares.

Another had candle dipping. We've done this several times and my kids still enjoy doing this . . . we really should start using the candles!

And someone who knits! We talked about where she sources her fibers and the group of living history people.

It was interesting to hear about all the different types of furs and cuts, which were preferred (winter coat), and how they were used.

He was very proud of his candle. Thanks for a little help and setting it up!

Inside the nearby shelter there were several activities/crafts for families, such as tin punching, tattoos, sugar camp days magnet coloring, and maple syrup taste tests. My 6-year-old guessed the one that is REAL maple syrup. Good job!

The pancake and sausage breakfast seemed successful with the line waiting to eat. It seemed to move at an okay pace. 

The ice sculptures were another visual treat. Loved this themed one!

Watching the carvers in action is so neat! I don't have that eye for transforming a block of ice (or other material) into a sculpture, but I'm glad others do.

Of course, my kids found sticks on the ground. They carried these for most of the maple syrup walking tour and they kept pretty entertained. At one point they used them for "camouflage" cover to hide in nearby pine trees. They were so proud of themselves.

There were even horse drawn wagon rides!

Along the tour of the sugar bush camp, we learned about maple tree identification and the scientific process that allows us to make maple syrup. Marge, our guide, was very knowledgeable.

More stick play . . .

You can rent a sap bucket to be a part of the process!

There were several demonstrations along the way. This stop looked at the Woodland Indian way of making maple sugar. Shallow wooden troughs held the sap and hot stones from the fire were put in to help evaporate the extra water content. Other methods might have been used, especially as they had more access to kettles in later years.

These were some of the materials that might have been used, such as spiles made of tree branches that have soft centers that were easy to dig out, birch bark buckets (as birch bark is waterproof), and other needed supplies. Maple sugar was often used to season savory dishes for added flavor.

Another modern day method--plastic bags to collect! Our neighbor uses milk jugs easily.

This shows the pioneer way of making the syrup, with a yoke to help carry the wooden buckets and a big kettle to suspend over the fire. The guide mentioned the pioneer women wanted the later syrup from the season, as it has more flavor for the baking. For pancakes, most of us prefer the earlier yields today, but there are different purposes and flavors depending on the trees and when it was collected.

We learned more about the modern day process here, such as using hydrometers to know when the syrup is ready.

We could taste the sap here . . . ours doesn't taste much different than water. It still has 98% water at this point, which is why so much boiling is needed.

A group of blacksmiths showed us their wares and how they made nails and other needed implements.

Modern day sugar bush camps include lots of plastic tubing, a hut to evaporate the sap, and a good source of heat.

Notice the vented window up top to let all the evaporation out.

Most maple syrup made today is done similar to this.

There were treats and wares throughout the area. We got different maple flavored cookies, maple hot dogs, and tried maple kettle corn. When I got a really good piece--it was heavenly, though it took a while to find those gems. There was even maple cotton candy by the nature center.

The boys wanted to check out the playground as soon as we got there. I waited . . . I use playgrounds to my advantage when out with the boys often. Going to the playground at the right time to avoid meltdowns, to encourage tired children, or as a reward has reaped great rewards in our outings. We took a break, ate our hot dogs, played, and then had a more willingness to enjoy the nature center later.

There were several people showing traditional skills in the nature center.

These hand hewn bowls were gorgeous!

Quilters with a fine eye for detail.

The man explaining the pewter making process was quite lively to listen to! He drew a crowd. My kids were drawn to the little pewter figurines for sale.

There was rug weaving and chair caning as well. I overheard one man ask if the chairs were being caned with plastic and she said, "Most certainly not." I believe (as there should be) there is a certain amount of pride in caning in a traditional method.

These are always tasty! We spent about $20 for the outing plus gas. It costs $7/car to enter/park, plus we purchased several treats along the way to taste the maple concoctions. The boys also each bought a small pewter figurine as part of our total. While we have made our own maple syrup at home for the last two years, it was fun to explore a new park, enjoy the festival atmosphere, and partake in the various offerings such as the historical methods of making maple syrup, the sugar house, blacksmiths, living history exhibits, arts and crafts, etc. We had a fun morning!