Words and photos by Ann Ivy Male
As many families get back into the groove after March Break, it’s good to know that in Mississauga, things are just gearing up at local farms, conservation areas, the Bradley Museum and other places, all for the production of one of the sweetest treats nature gives to us: maple syrup.
For my family, March Break would not have been complete without a visit to the Sugar Shack at the Jack Smythe Field Centre – a good friend (Marc) is an instructor there and he encouraged us to visit. It’s run under the Peel District School Board and is only open to the public during March Break, but it serves kindergarten to Grade 12 throughout the school year. The Jack Smythe Field Centre offers a variety of outdoor education programs such as: tree, bird, insect and stream studies; orienteering; snowshoeing through the forest and maple syrup making.
It was a balmy – 8°C when we visited last week. We were greeted by Marc and he pointed us in the right direction towards the Sugar Shack. We enjoyed a walk on the trail and passed the chickadee stand where the small birds will literally eat out of your hand (if you’re patient). The kids peeked into the shiny tin buckets on the trees which were already filling up with sap. We eventually arrived at three distinct demonstration areas.
The Legend of Maple Syrup
Our first stop was a traditional First Nations tepee found nestled amongst the trees. We stepped in and met Catherine, who happened to be tending to a small fire inside the structure. The interior of the tepee was warm and cosy, set up with straw bales for seating. There was a hollowed-out log filled with sap, simmering from the hot rocks placed inside the log – this is how the First Nations originally made their syrup.
Legend has it that Iroquois Chief Woksis and his wife, out of happenstance, discovered the sweet secret inside the maple tree. Every evening, after hunting, the chief would throw his tomahawk into a tree.
One morning, his wife came across a birch bark vessel that she used to collect water for cooking. The vessel was left beneath one of those trees – a maple tree – and the gash left behind from the tomahawk made the perfect spout for the sap to flow out of the tree and into the vessel.
That evening, Chief Woksis was overjoyed with the taste of the sweet stew his wife prepared for them, and he asked why it tasted so special. She told him that she hadn’t done anything different and she simply used the water he collected for her. The chief stated that he forgot to collect water that morning and soon they both realized that the “sweet water” came out of the maple tree. Today, thanks to this fortunate discovery, we continue to enjoy this magical maple treat.
The next area was the Pioneer Station. The tripod structure was built with logs and ropes to hold a large cast-iron kettle. Marc explained that the early settlers learned so much from the First Nations about how to tap trees, collect the sap, and boil it down using traditional methods. In time, the Europeans took it a step further to produce larger quantities of syrup. The iron kettle held about 60 liters of sap and boils away over an open fire. If left long enough to boil, the water content would eventually evaporate and what’s left is concentrated maple sugar—an essential commodity for the early settlers.
Did you know that it takes 40 litres of sap to make one litre of pure maple syrup? Maple syrup is one of Canada’s most valuable natural resources: it’s full of nutrients and antioxidants, and it tastes amazing! We also rank number one in the world when it comes to producing and exporting the amber-coloured liquid.
Inside the Sugar Shack
Our final demonstration area was the Sugar Shack itself and things were really steaming inside! We sat up on benches overlooking the large stainless steel evaporator. Sarah, our instructor, said that on some days, it’s so foggy inside that it makes for the perfect “maple steam facial.”
She goes on to explain the process of how modern-day maple producers have honed their craft. “Today, trees are still manually tapped using spiles (the metal spouts inserted into the trees) and buckets, but many producers also use blue tap lines to extract the sap more quickly and efficiently.” Once a large quantity of sap is collected in holding tanks, it’s then poured into the industrial evaporator to cook. Finally, it flows into finishing pans for the producer to determine the grade and quality of the maple syrup.
Sarah was kind enough to let us sample some of the sweet, sticky syrup after the presentation. So tasty! She also informed us that the ideal temperature for sap to flow from trees is –5°C at night and 5°C during the daytime, which means that as our days get warmer into spring, the birds will be chirping loudly and the sap will be flowing abundantly!
I explored the Jack Smythe Field Centre with my kids, and for a few moments I felt like a kid again myself, back at school on an awesome field trip!
With this in mind, why not venture out this spring with your family and enjoy one of the many events offered around Mississauga and the local maple syrup festivals yet to come?
Jack Smythe Field Centre
14592 Winston Churchill Blvd.