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Saturday, March 24 News

Despite late start, sweet season flowing strong

This winter has taken a toll on many supplies, including road salt, snow removal tools and produce. Another item that might be running short on the shelves this year is what makes eating pancakes so sweet: maple syrup.

The winter has been too cold for the sap to run from the tens of thousands of taps in state maple trees. Tapping season usually begins in early February, but that did not happen this year, according to Chris Hendershot, a school program manager at the New Canaan Nature Center.

"For a week and a half," Hendershot said, "the cold temperature did not allow anything to flow, anything to move."

On Saturday, however, the sap at the nature center's maple trees was flowing freely.

The center could not have scheduled a better day for its annual Syrup Saturday event. It was sunny and warm, with temperatures in the 40s.

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"The perfect temperature is 40 to 45 during the day and 20 to 25 at night," Hendershot said.

The day featured tree-tapping demos, a real maple sap boil down using sap from the center's trees, a pancake brunch, a lumberjack challenge, a wood-heaving competition and a log-rolling obstacle course.

During a similar weekend in late February, when temperatures hit 50 degrees, Hendershot said the nature center staff collected about 300 gallons of sap. Hendershot said 40 gallons are needed to make one gallon of syrup.

The sap, a combination of water, sugar and salt, is the sole ingredient of pure maple syrup and is created by a temperature swing. Freezing temperatures create suction that draws liquid in through a maple tree's roots, and warm temperature then creates pressure, which causes the sap to flow out through a tap hole, where it's collected in buckets.

Connecticut produced 20,000 gallons of maple syrup in 2013, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture -- a crop worth about $1 million. Of the 10 states in the U.S. that make maple syrup, Connecticut makes the least. In comparison, Vermont produced 1.3 million gallons in 2013.

For the sixth year, New Canaan families were able to "adopt" a maple tree at the nature center and take care of it for the season. This year, 53 families joined the program, according to Michelle Piazza, an environmental educator at the center.

One of them is the Wells family -- Doug and Holly and their son, Bobby. They said they have been going to their tree at least once a week.

So far, they said, Saturday was the day when their bucket was the fullest -- about a third of it. Doug Wells said there were several times when he went there this winter to find the bucket was empty.

The families deliver the buckets to the nature center staff, which then boils the sap down and bottles the syrup.

The Wellses said the program is an incentive to get out of the house.

"We do it to get outdoors," Holly Wells said. "In the winter, we don't get outdoors as much as we'd like."

Piazza agreed with her. She said the program helps parents take their kids away from electronic distractions.

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"It's a great way to get people outside and do something in the woods," Piazza said.

The program usually runs from the beginning of February until the end of March -- or until the sap stops flowing, which depends on the weather.

"Once it gets to be about 50, 60 (degrees), the sap just stays up at the buds and it starts to produce the leaves, and that's when you're done," Piazza said.

Another person who adopted a tree was Jim Doak, who was at the nature center with his three children. Doak said he loves the educational experience the program provides.

"People need to know where food comes from," he said.

As all other families, though, Doak hasn't been able to get much sap out of the trees.

"The weather's been so bad. Even on the best days, (the sap) is coming out as drips," he said. "Last year, it was great."

Staff writer Robert Miller contributed to this article.

noliveira@bcnnew.com, 203-330-6582, @olivnelson

Nelson Oliveira|Education/general assignment reporter