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Sap flows like water at Martell's Landing

The collected tree sap is boiled down and eventually becomes syrup. The process was demonstrated Saturday at Martell's Landing.

It's not something you would expect to see: a spigot jutting out from the trunk of a tree.

But to those who tap trees, the sight is as common as a vegetable garden.

Martell's Landing Education Center, 384 208th Ave. in Somerset, hosted a maple syrup and bluebird house event on Saturday, March 28. On hand were Bill Lawson and Kathy Brakke, Somerset residents and veteran tree tappers, as well as Lowell Peterson, local bluebird expert.

A cooker was set up outdoors, a thick column of smoke rose from the black kettle. Lawson stood nearby, occasionally glancing over to check the contents.

"You have to boil it like mad," Lawson said. "I've been boiling this batch for about six hours, but it depends on the heat."

Hard maples are the best, according to Lawson, but soft maple and boxelder trees work fine too.

Before tapping trees, the weather conditions have to be just right.

"It has to be in the 40s during the day and below freezing at night," Brakke explained. She has been tapping trees for 30 years. She estimates she uses 10 trees and gets 10 gallons of syrup a year.

"The wind will also affect the run," Brakke continued. "As long as the weather conditions are met and before the trees start to bud - that is when the sap will run."

And run it does.

Lawson took a group of people over to a big maple on the property. Using a hand drill, he made a hole about 1 - 1.5 inches deep into the bark. Removing the cork, the clear, water-like, sap already started oozing from the opening.

He next took a tap and placed it in the exposed hole. The tap had a clear tube attached to it so the sap can run down. He fed the tube into a cleaned-out milk jug and hung it on the tree. Within minutes, the clear sap had covered the bottom of the container.

"A tree will put out 2-3 gallons a day per tap," Lawson said. "You could put up to six taps on a big tree."

The more sap collected the better, because the next step is boiling off the water. Depending on the type of tree and conditions, it takes about 24-40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of pure maple syrup.

Although both Lawson and Brakke agree that the only "special" equipment a person would need to get started tapping trees would be the taps, they suggest having a way to boil the sap outdoors rather than in the kitchen.

"As the water evaporates, all the moisture in the air can take the wallpaper off," Brakke laughed. "Also have a chimney on your outdoor cooker so the smoke is carried away and not getting into the syrup and giving it a smoky flavor."

There were samples of the sap at different stages. The clear sap straight from the tree has little sugary flavor to it; many of the children who tried it were surprised and commented that it tasted like water.

They also had the opportunity to try it as is was part-way boiled down. Many of the kids preferred this version, as the sugary taste was more prominent.

The last taste was having pure maple syrup spooned over vanilla ice cream.

Brakke said the lighter the color of syrup, the higher quality it is.

"If I have enough, I give some out as gifts," Brakke said, holding one of her completed jars aloft. The syrup was very light in color and she said many people doubt it's actually maple syrup.

"They think it's honey, but that is just the mark of good quality maple syrup," Brakke said.

Peterson brought sections of bluebird houses that the attendees could assemble. The participants could buy their completed birdhouses for $10, or the houses would be used around Martell's Landing to promote the bluebird population.

"I used to use cedar because it weathers so well," Peterson told the group. "But it got so expensive that now I use pine and just cedar for the roof."

Peterson also gave a slide show on bluebirds and their habitats later on in the afternoon.

As the groups broke up, some of the kids went back to the maple tree to see the sap collect in the jug. While they were there, they felt drops hit their head from the tree. Sticking their hands out, they caught the falling drops and licked them off their hands.

Yummy, tree sap.