Focusing on families

Environmental Learning Center has maple syruping program

Photo by Jenny Kirk As several children and adults observe, Shetek Lutheran Ministries environmental education director Katie Chapman demonstrates the importance of measuring the diameter of a maple tree before starting the tapping process during the Maple Syruping Family Day on Saturday.

RURAL SLAYTON — The sound of children’s laughter and the sight of snow softly falling from the sky were among the noticeable highlights as people of all ages came together for Family Day on Saturday at the Environmental Learning Center on Keeley Island.

Family Day is part of the maple syruping program offered by Shetek Lutheran Ministries. Environmental education director Katie Chapman said she couldn’t have asked for a better day for the many families to be outdoors together.

“It’s absolutely gorgeous,” she said.

Mike and Amber Garcia, who are expecting their first child, were among the families who enjoyed the outdoor activity.

“It looks magical out here,” Amber Garcia said.

Julie and Joshua Nath took part in the day’s events with their seven children.

“This was a great day to do it,” Joshua Nath said.

Slayton residents MaryAnne and Travis Smith brought their 6-year-old daughter, Cecilia, and 6-month-old son, Thomas, to Family Day.

“We came out to do something as a family, outdoors, and to make memories,” MaryAnne Smith said. “And it’s just been a lot of fun, especially since it snowed. We love being outdoors.”

The 5-hour program included a walking tour, classroom time, lunch, play time, sledding and of course, tapping trees for maple syrup.

“It’s neat to get families together out here,” Chapman said. “I love being able to teach families something they can do together. Kids have a lot of screen time right now and there are families that don’t get to spend a lot of time together. Mom and dad both have to work and the kids are in daycare and in school. We’ve got tons of activities and the weekends are full, so we don’t have a lot of family time and initiatives that bring us together.”

Chapman said she believes the maple syruping program is a vehicle that does help bring families together.

“It promotes family stability and it’s just something new that people can try,” she said. “And it’s relatively inexpensive. You just have to buy a 5-gallon bucket and a spile.”

Appropriately bundled up, none of the children complained about being outdoors. There wasn’t even a peep from little Thomas.

“He’s a true Minnesotan,” Smith said.

While the conditions were great for being outdoors, with a pleasant temperature and little wind, the downside was that it wasn’t ideal for sap to run.

“Sap will only run when it’s below freezing during the night and above freezing during the day,” Chapman said. “It creates a pressure gradient inside the tree that forces the sap up to the branches, up to the leaves, and they start to bud out and then extra sap runs back down the tree through different tissue. That’s what we collect as excess. So the trees are starting to wake-up and are pushing sap back through its trunk, and it just runs up and down the tree until the leaves are unfurled.”

The lack of sap running conditions didn’t stop the group from tapping some trees and learning about the process in a hands-on way. With all the families gathered around, Chapman explained some of the basics.

“A maple tree has to be at least 38 inches around to tap it,” she said. “You drill the hole in the tree about chest-high if you’re an adult. And you never have it in the same spot that it was tapped in previous years.”

On the first attempt, the group selected a maple tree that was 41 inches in diameter. After saying “Migwetch,” which is a Native American way of saying thank you to the tree, people took turns drilling, blowing the bark out of the hole, pounding the spile into the tree, connecting a tube and running the tube into a bucket.

“Maple syruping is not really heard of on the prairie,” Chapman said. You think of Laura Ingalls in the big woods and you think of Vermont and Canada. You think of all these wooded places, especially out east like Maine. When you think about this being an enterprise out here, you kind of scratch your head and think, ‘how does that even work?'”

But amazingly, it does. And everyone in attendance seemed thrilled when the first drops of sap dropped into the bucket with a soft thud.

“You have a window of about 6-8 weeks, and it’s usually from mid-February until about mid-April,” Chapman said of the sugar bush season. “But it’s temperature dependent. If it’s above freezing at night and below freezing during the day, it will not run. And if it’s below freezing at night and during the day, it will not run. So it’s a persnickety window.”

Once the sap does start running, Chapman said it’s then “Go-time.”

“You’re chasing buckets and you’re checking trees,” she said. “You’re making sure all your lines are ready. You’re sanitizing. You’re boiling off. And you culminate by canning and you have this whole stockpile of amazing syrup to sell. It’s a short window, but it’s so much fun.”

The second tree the group selected to tap was a Norway maple 58 inches in diameter. Chapman explained that for every four inches above 38, you can put and additional tap, so they chose to do three.

“They do a great job of teaching from all aspects to all different levels of people’s background,” Smith said. “They have professionals here, all the way down to little kids. I appreciate that there’s a great range of information.”

Chapman said that as long as Shetek Lutheran Ministries has had an environmental learning program, they’ve done some tapping of trees. In the past, the program has been delivered in a variety of ways.

“We host school groups, field trips, scout groups, homeschooling groups and 4-H students have come out here to try their hand at different things,” Chapman said. “They learn about tapping trees, boiling off and other things. They even had a tomahawk toss for awhile. We’ve had several different directors and it’s kind of been like a novelty – come out to Shetek for a couple of hours and try your hand at something you’ve never tried before and learn a little bit about the history, culture and science behind it. How does it work? How do you do it?”

When Chapman started as director in 2013, she said she knew she wanted to make the sugar bush program the hallmark of their environmental learning program. While still offering opportunities for schools and youth organizations to learn and enjoy, Chapman said the program has advanced in various ways.

“We’ve gone from offering time during summer camps and offering field trips here and there, to being a vehicle of environmental stewardship and getting families out here that wouldn’t come to a Bible camp otherwise,” she said. “I wanted to make it more family friendly – to offer more programs that focused around families and things that families can do together. Family ministry is huge. It’s about creating that opportunity to reach out to that many more people.”

Chapman relishes the opportunity to include her husband, Charlie, and their children, Lydia and Francis, in the process as well.

“It’s really been a neat journey,” she said. “Most families don’t get outdoors as much as they should and they typically don’t meet new families. Parents often worry about their kids being on their phones too much, but with this, they have to set their phones down because you’re busy. We have to empty buckets. We have to boil. And it makes you forget about wanting to be on those screens.”

Chapman said it’s also a rewarding process in other ways.

“You’re putting forth energy toward something that, as a historical pastime, is part of our heritage,” Chapman said. “And it’s something cool that kids can learn from because it’s a vehicle for education on every aspect, from figuring out the diameter of a tree or figuring out how many gallons of sap is going to come out of a tree.”

While educational, it also provides opportunities for exploration and fun.

“They learn about tree science and can watch the world wake-up because it’s springtime,” Chapman said. “You’re looking for signs of spring and it brings you back to a place of peace. And you’re doing something fun and you’re exercising, so you sleep better. It’s all of those things that families are craving and aren’t necessarily getting. That’s why I want to grow this program.”

Chapman credited her husband for being an “intrinsic part” in the program’s evolution.

“He keeps things going, keeps our kids entertained, keeps the evaporator going while I’m teaching and he figures out better ways to do things,” she said. “This year, he built a pre-warmer. Before, we would go around and get sap and pour it cold, either from the fridge or right off the trees, into the hot, hot sap on the fire and it would kill the temperature. Then you’d have to bring it back up to a boil and it would take forever. But with the pre-warming pan, you can pour hot sap into your boiling sap and it speeds up the process of evaporation.”

The couple also made improvements in the collection process.

“We started out by hanging a milk jug on a spile and hoping it dripped in,” Charlie Chapman said. “Then we added the hose and cut a cap in the milk jug to keep some of the bugs out.”

Later on, they decided to put three holes in and connect them in a 5-gallon bucket.

“Now, Charlie has just strung our first lateral line, where we’re going to try running a gravity-fed line down to a main collection point between six trees,” Katie Chapman said. “So we’re constantly evolving.”

Donations and fees collected for participation go toward improving the maple syrup program.

“It’s definitely a labor of love,” Charlie Chapman said. “Like everything, including farming, the more you work toward it, even a small outcome is a big reward because you know how much went into. At the end of the day when we turn 115 gallons of sap into (about 3 inches) of syrup in the bottom of the pan, that’s the bonus. The biggest bonus is the family time and being able to see other families go out and enjoy it as well.”