In Potter and Tioga counties, maple syrup production is a big deal.
On Saturday, visitors can get an up-close, hands-on look at the process that starts with sap inside sugar maple trees and ends with syrup smothering fresh pancakes.
Hills Creek State Park in Tioga County will hold maple syrup demonstrations from noon to 3 p.m. Saturday
"They get to see the full operation," said Tim Morey, environmental education specialist at Hills Creek State Park.
"We use buckets, and a pipeline is set up on the hillside to collect the sap," he said.
Visitors can watch the boiling process and learn how to tap a tree and hang a bucket.
Get your syrup on at annual Maple Weekend
Visitors to the 87th annual Maple Weekend on March 24-25 can find plenty of places to get a syrup fix.
The event, sponsored by the Potter-Tioga Maple Syrup Producers, involves at least 15 producers, all of which welcome guests from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. to learn all about maple trees and the syrup created from their sap.
"This is one of the great times for the producers because they actually get to educate," said Sandi Spencer, executive director of the Tioga County Visitors Bureau.
When most people think of maple syrup, they think of Vermont, Spencer said, but Tioga County has one of the largest producers of maple syrup in the state - Patterson Farms - in Westfield.
"The maple producers like to do this and pass on the traditions," she said. "(They help in) getting people excited so they may do it on their own."
The visitors bureau is joined by three agencies - the Potter County Visitors Association, Pennsylvania Route 6 Alliance, and the Lumber Heritage Region of Pennsylvania - that help promote the weekend.
More information and maps are available at www.pamaple.com.
Hills Creek State Park also will hold demostrations where visitors can try their hand at production. The park does not sell products.
Backyard syrup collection is becoming more and more popular and according to Morey it can be done very easily.
"Families could come in and walk away with an idea of how to get it from their backyard," Morey said.
The demonstrations teach people about the area's history and heritage involved in maple syrup making, Morey said.
As of now, the park is right on schedule, even though the warm weather has the sap running pretty quickly, he said.
Larger producers have seen what is called a very fancy, or clearer, syrup early this year. The mild temperatures are one of several factors that play a role in the clarity of the syrup.
It's hard to predict what the season will be like because it depends on the weather, said Dale Miller, owner of Miller's Purely Maple in Wellsboro.
"So far it has been a good season," he said, predicting that when the season closes, his company will end up with an average production of syrup.
Miller taps about 4,400 trees on his farm. If the warming trend continues, his March totals may be lower than usual, he said.
"We need freezing (temperatures) at night and warming during the day," he said.
The fluctuation between the daytime and night-time temperatures is what helps the sap flow.
"Lighter is harder to make. Most of us like the maple-like darker kind," he said. "The fancy grades have a very little hint of maple."
Maple syrup comes in five grades, ranging from light to dark:
Light amber - Light in color, very little flavor. Used in maple creme and candy;
Medium amber - Medium light colored, a little more flavor than light. Most popular grade. Popular on pancakes;
Grade A Dark Amber - more maple flavor. Also used for pancakes;
Grade B - Dark and strong in flavor. Used to mix into cooking dishes, brings out a maple flavor in dishes;
Grade C - Very dark and has an off-flavor. More of a commercial grades, this kind doesn't make it to the typical consumer's kitchen. Sold in bulk, mixed with various food products.
Dark is good for baking or cooking and, Morey said, "sticking to your pancake."
The fancy light grade brings a premium price, but is finished earlier. The syrup darkens as the season progresses.
Pick a tree
The sugar, or hard, maple statistically is the best tree to tap and, Morey said, tends to have the sweetest sap.
"Out of all the other maple trees we could tap, the sugar has the highest concentration of sugar in sap," he said, and it takes a shorter time to make the syrup, too.
The sugar maple is abundant in Hills Creek State Park, but Morey said it also has red maples.
Sap can be harvested from any of the related species of the maple, even Norway and box maple, but it's going to depend on what a person wants it to taste like. Some maples contain less sugar and syrup from them will have different tastes after processing.
During the demonstration, visitors will be taught how to identify a maple, even in the winter, by using the bark, twigs and structure.
"The easiest way to do it is when they change color in the fall," Morey said. "Identify them by the color and then flag that tree."
Preparing for event like this one is a year-round process for the park and staff.
"You need to make sure you have the supplies, which we have on hand," Morey said.
The park is unlike producers that sell their syrup for profit. Hills Creek does not have to meet a high yield of syrup. Instead, it deals in smaller quantities for demonstration only.
"Some larger producers would laugh,"?Morey said. "We have 60 or so taps on our pipeline system, which is more than enough for what we do. Those taps can run a gallon or two a day, depending on weather."
Sap starts collecting for the demonstration several days earlier.
After it is collected from the trees, the sap has to be boiled down in an evaporator, which the park has.
"It takes at least four hours of boiling to make one gallon (of syrup)," Morey said.
Rich maple growth
The Northern Tier is rich in maple trees in its forests and, Morey said, the history of maple syrup production is just as rich as the trees that produce it.
Trees that are mature and larger than 12 inches in diameter are sought out to tap. If smaller trees are tapped, the process could kill them.
"The comparison would be giving blood in humans. They want you to be over a certain and weight and be in good health," Morey said. "So if the tree isn't healthy or over a certain diameter, you should not tap that tree. It could stress the tree."
As for drilling a hole into the tree, no harm is done. The tap hole actually will heal.
Throughout the years, Morey said, the hole size has gotten smaller. It's gone from one-sixteenth of an inch to five-sixteenths. The smaller hole heals faster and produces the same amount of sap.
Miller has spent 80 to 100 hours drilling holes in his trees. He uses a battery-operated drill and a pipeline exclusively to get the syrup to the sugar house.
Things have changed over the years, Morey said. Years ago, producers would have carried an old bit and brace, a manual-cranking drill to tap the tree, but now the park and many producers have switched to a cordless drill to make the tap holes.
At the demo, those who tap trees will use the old bit and brace method to be able to experience the old way of doing things.
"They get to do a bit of the work, imagine what it would be like tapping thousands or even hundreds of holes with that," Morey said.
Before cordless drills, heavy gas-powered drills were used.
Miller said he likes to meet with people who have tried to collect sap before.
"They see how much work it is," he said, and how hard it can be dealing with the weather and equipment.
Miller's also will have an open house during the demonstration weekend. The facility will be open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday and next Sunday.
Visitors can see a running evaporator, get hands-on experience in tapping a tree and even try a maple dog - a hot dog cooked in syrup.
The Millers also will answer questions.