March is the month the Senecas call "Moon of the Maple." Sap surges from roots to branches of maple trees in Allegany State Park's sugarbush.
Wayne Robbins and Judy Thaler of Nature Ed-ventures, an organization that sponsors educational programs on environment and cultural history, invited us on a tour of maple sugaring through the ages. Afterward, there is a pancake breakfast.
The tour is part of Nature Ed-ventures programs that are held throughout March to teach about the centuries-old tradition of maple sugaring.
Warm days have melted most of the snow in the woods, but cold nights have left granular icy patches. Alternating freezing nights and warm days are unique to the climate of northeastern United States and nearby Canada and is essential to the production of sufficient sweet sap to make maple syrup.
We take part in the "Maple Magic" tour, which takes participants through Allegany State Park on a historical tour of maple sugaring that includes costumed interpreters and a visit to the sugar house.
Robbins, our guide, is dressed in a 19th century plug hat, plaid wool shirt and gum boots. "One of these trees growing in Asia will not make enough sap for syrup," he says. "Bring it here and it will. This is the only place in the world that makes maple syrup."
He leads us single file into the woods on a trail depicting 400 years of maple sugaring. We meet our first enactor, a 17th century Seneca sugar maker. "This young man," Robbins says, "was an orphaned white boy raised by a Seneca family."
He is dressed in a green woolen coat made from a Hudson Bay blanket. On his head is a cap with a single eagle feather, Seneca style. He tends a fire. Nearby, wooden snowshoes lean against a tree and a trade ax is imbedded in a log.
Robbins shows us the "V"-cut the Indians made in the bark of a maple and the hollow sumac spigot used to lead sap out of the "V." It dripped into a dish gouged out of a log or into a birch bark container. "Each family member would have a thousand containers," Robbins says.
A large wooden vessel constructed like a dugout canoe stands by the fire. It is full of sap for boiling. The Seneca sugar maker uses two sticks to lift red hot rocks from the fire into the vessel. They set up a bubbling, hissing roll in the sap.
"Mostly women did the sugaring. The men would be off hunting, but they'd want to hang around for some of the good times. For fun they poured syrup on snow to carmelize, making a tasty chew," Robbins says.
"The Indians did not have containers for long-term storage of syrup so they boiled it down into sugar. They ate sugar straight, as well as cooked with all kinds of food: venison, fish, beans, corn, squash," he explained. "They carved out wooden molds in animal shapes and poured melted sugar into them. If you visited at their house you'd be offered one of these for a snack."
Robbins turns to his Seneca friend and asks for some of the contents of his leather traveling pouch. He shows us the parched corn and chunks of maple sugar. "These would sustain an Indian on a long journey," he says.
The next stop is up the slope to an 18th century European settlers camp.
"During the Revolution the Senecas fought on the side of the British," Robbins explains. "Washington sent Gen. Sullivan into Seneca territory and drove them back to Fort Niagara. The Senecas had large cornfields, apple, pear and peach orchards, storehouses of corn and lived in log cabins. Sullivan and his men laid waste to it all. The Senecas call that 'the winter of starvation.' After the war, the new United States government rewarded its soldiers with grants of land here."
Our next set of enactors are a Revolutionary War veteran and his wife. Grace Christy, the park naturalist, wears a white bonnet and a green great cloak as she stands in front of a tent not far from an iron cauldron boiling sap over a fire.
Robbins points out the settlers' wooden sap-collecting buckets hung from metal spiels. "Hanging buckets on trees keeps them from getting kicked over or leaves and dirt blowing into them. Settlers found cutting into trees killed a lot of them, so they used augers to drill holes and then insert hollow metal spiels into the tree. Spiel is the New Englander's nasally way of pronouncing the word spill, the common English term for any hollow tap into a container," he explained.
"Grace, show the folks how you collect buckets," he said. She dons a wooden yoke and hooks buckets from either end to show us this 17th century labor-saving device. Then she showed her barrel mounted on a hand-drawn wooden sled.
"Maple sugar was an important trade commodity for both the Indians and settlers," Robbins said. "After a time, the U.S. government removed tariffs, and cane sugar from the West Indies became plentiful and cheap. But there was still a market for the syrup with its delicious flavor.
"Sugar could be stored in wooden barrels, but not syrup. Barrels need to swell and syrup can't do that, so syrup eventually leaks. With the invention of the tin can there was a way to bring syrup to the market."
A little farther along the trail, he points to covered galvanized buckets of the 1930s; flat shallow evaporator trays; ugly, leaking plastic bags of the 1940s and the now-common maze of plastic tubes. The tubing has certainly simplified moving sap from tree to evaporator shed, but, I have to comment, "Those tubes sure mess up the woods."
We clamber downhill out of the trees and jam into the little building labeled "Sugar Shack." Steam billows from its windows. Inside we toast ourselves around the "arch" (metal box) that contains a blazing wood fire. Fragrant steam rises from the sap that circulates in a series of evaporator bays. A farmer tends the fire.
Robbins brings out a war-time rationing book with sugar coupons. "During World War II, there were shortages of everything," he said. "Sugar, meat, butter and gasoline were rationed. There were so many little sugaring operations that the government couldn't control them by rationing, but they did put price and sugar-content regulations into force. The price for syrup was $1.50 a gallon. I heard one place they are charging $48 a gallon now. Sugar content was set at 66 percent."
After the Sugar Shack, we all trek down to the Camp Allegany dining hall. There, Thaler and the kitchen crew have pancakes and sausage sizzling on a huge grill. On each table are two pitchers of the succulent amber fluid of which we have learned a great deal today, pure Allegany State Park Maple Syrup.
>If you go
Allegany State Park is 70 miles south of Buffalo, just past Salamanca off Route 219.
Nature Ed-Venture has a variety of Maple Sugaring programs scheduled throughout March. Registration is required. The "Maple Magic" program for the general public is held at 1 p.m. March 7; 11 a.m. March 8 and March 11; and 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. March 15. The cost, including lunch and tour, is $13 for adults, $8 for ages 4-10; free for ages 3 and under. Programs are also available for senior groups, school, home schoolers and scouts.
A family weekend, March 21 and 22, includes lodging, three meals and program activities for $80 a person; $40 for ages 2 to 4; free for under 2.
For more information, contact Judy Thaler at (716) 479-9190, www.natureed-ventures.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.