The Kortright Conservation Centre takes visitors back in time to trace Ontario’s sweet and sticky maple syrup heritage.
It’s a Saturday afternoon in mid-March, and the maple tree sap in the Kortright sugarbush should be flowing. But a cold snap has frozen the faintly sweetened water into ice in the roots of the trees. “Some farmers were collecting sap back in January,” says Jaime Sidler, a teacher at the Kortright Conservation Centre, a demonstration site owned and operated by the Toronto Region and Conservation Authority. “We had more typical maple syrup weather then compared to this.”
In order to collect sap for maple syrup, temperatures need to be above freezing in the day and below freezing at night—a temperature pattern typical in late winter and early spring in southern Ontario. Wonky weather and climate change has made for an unpredictable start to the maple sugar season, though. But that hasn’t stopped dozens of visitors from coming to the historic sugarbush to learn about how the sweet sap concentrate became a symbol of Canadian heritage.
In the 555-acre forest where the conservation centre in located, sugar and red maples—those with the highest sugar concentrations in their sap—are connected by a web of blue tubes that carry sap from each tree to a 1,200-litre holding tank. When the tank is full, it empties into a long stainless steel vat where, in eight hours, it’s boiled down to 30 litres of syrup.
The process for making syrup wasn’t always so streamlined. Long before settlers arrived in Canada, Indigenous people were tapping trees to make syrup from the sap. Using a stone or bone axe, they would slash a shallow slit into the sapwood of the tree, insert a wooden spigot, and let the sap run into a birch bark container. Once the container was full, they’d begin the week-long process of reducing the sweet water to syrup.
At Kortright, staff demonstrate the process for visitors. Sidler pulls apart a fire with two pronged sticks and scoops up a white-hot stone. She drops it into a hollowed out log—a cooking pot for the syrup—and it sizzles when it hits the sap, steam escaping into the cold air. The process eventually evolved to use a brace and bit (a sort of manual drill) to tap the trees and pots to boil down the sap over the fire. The method reduced production time to about 24 hours.
Maple syrup in Ontario was a desired commodity and a valuable trading currency in the region until the late 19th century, when refined sugar became an affordable household staple. Today, maple syrup production in Ontario is one-fifth of what it was at the start of the 20th century.
Less than a hundred kilometres south-west of Kortright, John Dennis is working to reconnect the community of Guelph with their sappy roots. “We have roughly 3,000 maple trees in this city and the vast majority of them go untapped,” says Dennis. “That’s a great resource that’s not being used.”
Last year, the environmental activist and community organizer with Transition Guelph set out to change that by launching the Urban Sugaring Project. The initiative encourages members of the public to tap maple trees on their own properties.
At the beginning of maple syrup season, Dennis brings folks together and teaches them how to collect the sap (“it’s a fairly straight-forward process,” he notes) and rents out equipment they need for it. Once they’ve filled their buckets, Dennis collects the harvest and boils it into syrup in his backyard production facility.
This year, at the end of the season, community members will gather for a pancake breakfast at John McCrae Public School, which is also taking part in the program, and there, participants will collect their spoils. “The public response has been awesome,” says Dennis, who has 110 tappers participating this season, up from 70 last year. “A lot of people have positive experiences around maple syrup,” he adds. “Maybe they grew up somewhere where they went out to a sugarbush, or their parents made maple syrup. Whatever it is, who doesn’t love the idea of having pancakes with maple syrup from the tree in my front yard?”
There’s also a sense of optimism around being outdoors on the first warm days of the year, collecting sap for syrup “It means spring is coming,” says Dennis. “That’s kind of exciting.”
While a stop-and-go season can be frustrating for farmers, and hobbyists like Dennis, fluctuating temperatures during the season don’t typically affect the quality or quantity of syrup production. It’s the climate during the summer that really matters. With more extreme weather, including drought in the summer months, maple trees can struggle to produce an abundance of sap. Indeed, it’s ample rain and sunlight that function as the building blocks for sap—the energy the tree produces in its leaves and stores in its roots over winter until it rises in the spring to grow buds and leaves for the tree.
“Last year was rough,” says Dennis. “When you have big droughts like that, you’ll have way less sap in the spring. That’s one thing I cautioned people about this year: don’t put too many taps in the trees—you only want to take a small percentage of its sap.”
In order for the tree to flourish, tappers should never take more than 10 per cent of its sap, and only from big, healthy trees. Maples that are 80 centimetres in circumference, for example, can have one tap, which yields about 40 litres of sap. Larger trees, meanwhile, can handle two or more taps to harvest more sap.
Sidler and the folks at the Kortright Centre also encourage community members to get out and tap their trees—but only if they’re healthy enough to spare some of their sweet energy reserves.
As we walk along the tree-lined trail at Kortright, quickly to keep warm, we stop at a knotty maple that’s bigger than the rest. “This is Grandpa Maple,” says Sidler. “He’s over 250 years old, and we don’t tap him anymore.” Up close, you can see dozens of circular bumps on his trunk, scars from decades of tapping. Most trees can be tapped from the time their 40 years old and into their mid hundreds. “It totally depends on the health of the tree. He could still possibly be tapped, but we don’t want to risk it,” says Sidler. “It’s important that we have this great relationship with the trees,” she adds. “We need to make sure they’re healthy and that they can live on after they can no longer be tapped.” After all, syrup may be a sweet treat on a stack of pancakes, but it’s the life force of our forests.