Philadelphia Parks and Recreation recently held Maple Sugar Day, presented by the Wissahickon Environmental Center. The annual free event was open to all curious about the process of sugar making or just hungry for free pancakes.
“We usually do it the last week in February, luckily the weather turned out beautiful. We were a little concerned about the ice. But we figured this year, people would be ready to get outdoors,” Trish Fries, 12th year director for the Environmental Education Program for Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, said about the event.
It turned out to be a warm day amid this year’s harsh winter, but a thick layer of ice stayed un-melted along the Wissahickon and Valley Green trails.
“We put straw down, we put wood chips down, we had to plow out parking spots this year,” Fries shared about the difficulties of hosting an outdoor winter event.
A combination of staff and volunteers began setting up days in advance, but much of the event involves hands-on demonstrations.
“A good place to start would be at the sugar bush [trail], to the evaporator, to the different syrups, to the pancakes and then over to the sugaring, and then we also have storytelling,” Fries said about how the day usually unfolds. The sugar bush trail is where the maple trees are located.
“Sugar maples usually grow in cooler, rocky soil. We have the climate for it. Pennsylvania is the seventh largest maple sugar producer. [Gathering maple sugar] was an American Indian tradition that the colonists learned from them. Honey was the first sugar, but maple was easier to transport,” Debbie Carr, director of the Environmental Education Program for Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, stated.
The many children who have gathered to watch Fries drill into a maple tree are equally excited to smother pancakes in syrup and taste handmade maple sugar candies.
“It’s definitely family oriented. We try to get the kids young, but there’s a lot of information the parents understand, probably more than the kids, but everyone loves pancakes and syrup,” Fries said.
“I have two older kids and I use to bring them, so I wanted to bring Ben now,” Alia Thompson, a participator in Maple Sugar Day said. “I just really like the way it’s set up for the kids.”
The most popular part of the day is when Pete Kurtz and Paul Biederman, both members of the Wissahickon Environmental Center, start making the candies at their stand.
“Biggest thing it teaches you is patience. You cook the sap at 280 degrees, let it cool, then when it starts looking like peanut butter you put it into the mold and enjoy,” Biederman said about the process.
“Always nicer when it is freshly made, like a cookie. At the store [maple candies] are quite expensive, but this is something you could try at home, just use ice cube trays,” Kurtz said.
The free treats are a crowd pleaser but Debbie Carr hopes the kids also learn from the event. “It’s a wonderful way to learn about trees,” Carr said.