A Day at the River Bend Sugar Bush – part II

We last left off with sliding down snowy and icy paths to collect buckets of maple sap. It’s been a few weeks now, and the River Bend sugar bush is working at full steam. With a total of about fifty trees tapped, we are continuing to collect sap every day with the help of staff and volunteers. On March 6th we collected a record amount of sap for the season—145 gallons! (This was produced by the trees in less than twenty-four hours)

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Photo Credit: Stephanie Rathsack
In a record total for this year’s sap season, we collected 145 gallons of sap in less than twenty-four hours.

With that much sap alone we’d be able to produce about three and a half gallons of maple syrup. Our recent collection runs have been less icy, but far more muddy, making the treks through the sugar bush tricky at worst, and extremely messy at best.  But shoes full of muck is a fair price to pay for the increased sap production that occurs with days in the 40s and 50s.

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Photo Credit: Stephanie Rathsack
With warm weather, sap bags (which hold about 2 gallons) can fill up quick!

And though increasingly warmer temperatures hark the end of the sap season, we expect to continue being able to collect through the end of the week, and into the following week as well. Meanwhile, the maple sap that has been collected up to this point is getting boiled down to begin the transformation from sap to syrup. This process requires high heat over a long period of time, for which we use a maple sap evaporator, which looks a bit like a giant wood burning stove. The sap is fed into the tank via gravity, and heat from the fire evaporates the water out, slowly decreasing the liquid in the sap and increasing the concentration of sugar.

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Photo Credit: Stephanie Rathsack
We let gravity do most of the work, as the sap starts in a bin held high off the ground before traveling down into the boiling chambers.

Maple sap generally has a 2-3 percent concentration of sugar, and this must be increased to about 68 percent found in maple syrup. This immense reduction in water requires large amounts of sap to be boiled for several days before it is ready to be bottled as syrup. Again with the help of volunteers and staff, the evaporator gets up and running early in the morning, and requires constant supervision throughout the day in order to continue feeding the fire, monitoring sap levels, and preventing scorching.  Even after several days on the evaporator, the syrup still is not completely finished—it requires a period of time on a stove top where the heat can be more fine-tuned and the syrup can move through its final stages of processing.

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Photo Credit: Stephanie Rathsack
Sap is “finished” over a stovetop where temperatures and consistencies can be monitored more closely.

As the sap reaches higher and higher sugar concentrations, it must be watched closely until finally after filtering one last time, bottling can begin. For long-term storage of maple syrup, specialized jars are purchased in a variety of sizes. River Bend bottles their syrup in large gallon jars down to tiny half-pint jars and everything in between. These jars of “liquid gold” will make appearances in a variety of River Bend programs and activities.

 

Want to learn more about maple sap production/taste a sample of this year’s bounty? River Bend is offering a variety of opportunities for the public to get involved in the fun of maple syruping:

 

Maple Syrup Open House– Celebrate syrup season at River Bend Nature Center! On March 18th, 2017 from 10:00AM to NOON there will be a variety of fun and FREE activities to participate in. Learn about the maple syruping process with trivia and taste tests and visit the sugar bush to collect sap, and see the evaporator in full swing.

Maple Syrup Fun Run- scheduled for Saturday, May 6th, 2017. Our races include a 50K, 25K, 10K and 5K trail runs (all jumbo clock timed) and a one-mile fun walk on an accessible paved trail (untimed). Race entry fee includes entry to our Pancake Brunch after the Fun Run, and a race shirt.

Maple Syrup Pancake Brunch– Come out to River Bend on Saturday, May 6th for delicious pancakes topped with River Bend’s own real maple syrup. Our pancakes will be cooked by the expert staff from Bernie’s Grill! We’ll also have sausages, coffee, and juice to accompany our pancakes.

 

A Day at the River Bend Sugar Bush – Part I

With unseasonably warm weather ahead of us for the next few weeks, the staff and volunteers at River Bend Nature Center are preparing for one of the most exciting times of the year—maple syrup season!

As temperatures rise above freezing during the day, but drop below freezing at night, some incredible unseen changes take place under the bark of our forest’s trees. To understand this change takes a bit of knowledge about a tree’s inner workings as well as some basic knowledge of physics. Trees are composed of several layers beneath their bark—these layers include the xylem (sapwood) and the phloem. The phloem transports nutrients down the tree, while the xylem transports nutrients up. When temperatures rise above freezing, pressure builds up inside the trunk, forcing sap out of any wounds or tapping holes (with spiles as shown below). Alternatively, at night when the temperatures fall, the pressure drops and creates suction, drawing water into the tree through the roots. This suction replenishes the sap in the tree and allows it to flow again during the next bout of warm temperatures.

 

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Source: http://www.rmgmaple.com/ZenCart/index.php?main_page=page_3

 

What is a sugar bush?

A sugar bush is a portion of forest that is utilized for the production of maple syrup. It is characterized by a predominance of maple trees. Other species may be present, but the majority of the canopy consists of a combination of sugar, red, black, and other maple varieties. The trees tend to be older, and the same trees may have been tapped for years. During the syrup season, there is usually a layer of snow on the ground, and light snows may still fall (referred to as sugar snows) during the season. Sap production will taper off as temperatures continue to rise, and the sap is no longer collected when the buds begin to burst. After the syrup season is over, a flush of wildflowers often appears between the trunks of the large trees, taking advantage of the sunlight coming through the empty canopy. In the full green of summer, the sugar bush will be cool and shady, followed by a colorful display of autumn leaves.

River Bend’s sugar bush can be found primarily along the south branch of the Owl trail, and very soon sap collection will be going full steam.

 

 

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Source: Stephanie Rathsack

Today at the sugar bush, the season is just getting started. With a cleaning and inventory of all the necessary supplies, we set out into the woods to visit a few of the larger trees. After sliding precariously down icy paths and heading into the cooler cover of the trees, we reached the River Bend Sugar Bush. And down, close to the river, a few tall black maples stand with distinguishable scars on their massive trunks. These trees have been tapped by River Bend staff and volunteers for years and are a reliable source of sap almost every season. The scars from past years where the holes had been drilled are faintly visible in the bark of the trees. They look a little like tree belly buttons. These old wounds need to be avoided when putting in a new spile, because any scar tissue might have redirected the flow of sap. We measure up and over from the most recent scar before drilling into the tree. The shavings spiral out as we drill deeper, and some look and feel a bit damp—a sure sign of sap beginning to flow!

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Source: Stephanie Rathsack

 

With the addition of a spile and a blue sap bag, the tree is ready for the syrup season.

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Source: Stephanie Rathsack

 

 

This process will be repeated almost eighty times, and we’ll find ourselves visiting the sugar bush every day, stomping through the snow to visit each tree to collect the sap, with a bucket in each hand, continuing a tradition that’s been going on for hundreds of years.

 

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Source: Collections Online                                                   Source: Stephanie Rathsack
Minnesota Historical Society

 

Want to learn more about maple syrup, its history, and the transformation from sap to syrup? River Bend will be offering several programs now through the beginning of April, many with a chance to taste some real syrup, or to tap a tree yourself!

Maple syrup workshops will be offered March 8th and March 11th, the maple syrup open house is planned for April 1st, and the Maple Syrup Fun Run is scheduled for May 6th.

Check our website and Facebook for updates on dates and times. Maple sap is temperature-dependent, so all events are subject to change.

“Hopping”Into Astronomy

Winter is in full-swing this week, with fresh snowfalls (not to mention temperature falls). And though this snowy wonderland brings a flurry of activity during the daytime, with school groups coming in almost every day, I’d like to instead dedicate this post to the less-frequently seen beauty of River Bend—that is, what we can only see after dusk. And even though we’ve passed the Winter Solstice, the sun is still setting relatively early, around 5:00 pm, which is good news for those of us who look forward each evening to having the opportunity to be astronomers. I find my own eyes wandering skyward as well, as the light starts to vanish at the end of the day, because no matter how many times I see it, I never get tired of a sky full of stars. But to the amateur astronomer, learning where to start can be a daunting task. With countless telescopes on the market, weighty textbooks filled with complicated diagrams and star charts, not to mention the sheer number of celestial objects to be viewed, it’s enough to make anyone want to quit before they’ve even started. This blog post is meant to serve as a beginner’s guide to astronomy. Whether you’ve taken a few courses in school, or whether you’re just starting to wonder about the night sky, this guide will be a simple tool to take away some of the complications and confusion of amateur astronomy.

The first step to learning about the stars is to not buy a telescope. This is so important and so misunderstood, that it’s worth saying again: do not begin your interest in astronomy with buying a telescope. This is perhaps the fastest way to kill the hobby, as telescopes can be expensive, and are not simple tools to use, even with experience. Even the ones advertised for beginners which promise easy-use, can’t be used for much more than to look at the moon. If you still want to be able to have a “close up” of celestial objects, instead purchase or borrow a pair of binoculars, which are far less expensive, and far easier to use. Truly though, the only tool you need to study and enjoy the night sky are your eyes and a willingness to observe. Couple this with a little bit of study, and you’re well on your way to opening up the entire cosmos. But for the purpose of this blog, we’ll start small, or rather, we’ll start close.

When you look up into the night sky, what you are viewing is a portion of our home galaxy, the Milky Way. On average, without the aid of a telescope or binoculars, you may see up to 2000 stars, although the galaxy is believed to have over 100 billion stars. We are limited on what we can see because of several reasons: Many stars are on the other side of the Earth, some stars are too dim or too far away to be visible, and some may be blocked from sight by other planets or other stars. In fact, some of the difficulty lies in the fact that Earth is positioned within the Milky Way galaxy. If we were outside it, we could view the entirety of the galaxy and all of its stars, but being within it means that we can only ever see portions of it at a time. For those same reasons, the stars that we see with the unaided eye, are only stars within the Milky Way, and they are generally the closest ones as well.

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Photo credit: google images

For the amateur astronomer however, 2000 stars is a great place to start—It’s where our ancestors began and all civilizations before us began as well. These are the stars that make up constellations, and are the easiest and most fun to explore.

In the Northern Hemisphere, the easiest constellations to spot are known as “circumpolar constellations”. These groupings of stars are situated above Earth’s northern axis, and therefore can be seen in the night sky year round, unlike other constellations which appear to rise above and set below the horizon.  Probably the most famous of the circumpolar constellations is the constellation known as Ursa Major, the Big Bear—which includes the Big Dipper.

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Above: throughout the year, the Big Dipper is always visible, but just appears to move in a circle.
Photo credit: google images

The Big Dipper is also the most famous example of an exercise known as “star hopping”. In star hopping, the viewer takes stars that he or she is familiar with, and uses them to find stars and constellations they are less familiar with. In this way, your knowledge can easily be expanded across the sky! To locate the Big Dipper, start by looking North. If you are not sure which direction North is, start by picking the darkest section of sky. At the time of this post, the Big Dipper is located relatively low near the horizon, so begin your search there, turning in a slow circle and search for a bright grouping of stars. In the winter, the Big Dipper appears to be standing on the end of its handle, with the bucket pointing straight up. To begin star hopping, once you find the Big Dipper, locate the two end stars of the bucket (known as pointer stars) and follow them towards the next brightest star, as shown in the above image. In this way, you have successfully “hopped” to the North Star, Polaris, and also the constellation Ursa Minor (Little Dipper).  Polaris is the last star in the “handle” of the Little Dipper. After acquainting yourself with which direction is North, this will allow you to locate even more constellations.

Another easy circumpolar constellation to spot is Cassiopeia the Queen. To star hop to this constellation, continue following the path of the pointer stars from the Big Dipper, past Polaris the North Star, and the next brightest star along that curve is Cih, the central star in the w-shaped constellation Cassiopeia.

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Above: Starting with the Big Dipper, follow the pointer stars up to Polaris, and finally up to the W of Cassiopeia.
Photo credit: Stellarium

In addition to the Circumpolar constellations, there are easy to spot groupings of stars that are most prominent in certain seasons. In the Winter, this includes the constellations Orion, Canis Major, Canis Minor, Taurus, and Gemini. The easiest of these constellations to find, is the constellation of Orion, the hunter. It is also from this constellation that you may star hop to several others listed previously. To find Orion in the night sky, look to the Southeast, midway between the horizon and directly overhead. The most prominent section of Orion is the three stars that make up his belt. These stars are grouped closely together in a straight line, while the remainder of the constellation forms something similar to an hourglass around them.

To star hop to two other prominent winter constellations, follow the line of Orion’s belt up towards the red star Aldebran, which is the left eye in the constellation Taurus the Bull. In Mythology, Orion is often depicted as fighting the Bull. Similarly, follow the line of Orion’s belt down towards the bright star Sirius, also known as the Dog Star. Sirius is the brightest star in the night sky, and is also therefore the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major (in mythology often depicted as one of Orion’s hunting dogs).

aldebranPhoto credit: Stellarium

siriusPhoto credit: Stellarium

By following these guidelines, and expanding on knowledge you already have, it soon becomes easy to begin tracing many well-known constellations. After you are familiar with the easier constellations, consider getting some simple star charts (planispheres) in order to find more difficult stars and constellations.

Winter is a great time to view the night sky, and River Bend offers a wonderful view from the prairie loop trail and the overlook trail. And if star gazing is something you’d like to learn more about, attend River Bend’s upcoming Winter Fest ( http://www.rbnc.org/winterfest/ )—new this year will be presentations on star gazing, with a chance to put your skills to the test! Also coming up will be a traveling celestial show to be hosted at River Bend on January 27th (http://www.southernminn.com/faribault_daily_news/community/article_6535d35f-d6b3-5a89-919b-a981a67de6bf.html ).

 

Have other tips and tricks for finding stars and constellations? Please share them in a comment!