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Brisk Maple Magic hike ends with sweet treat in Westminster

Wintry weather held off Saturday, allowing some Carroll County residents to capitalize on a magical time of year — a brief window.

Maple syrup season, that is.

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Late February through early March is the optimal time of year to tap maple trees for their sweet sap, said Nicole Bowman, park naturalist at Carroll County Department of Recreation and Park’s Bear Branch Nature Center.

That’s because temperatures during the end-of-winter time frame drop below freezing at night and climb above 32 degrees during the day, Bowman told a group of families at the nature center Saturday afternoon. The daily fluctuation in temperatures forces the sap to move up the tree, she said.

Once the trees bud and flower, Bowman said, they need the sugar contained in their sap for leaves.

As families gathered for the Maple Magic hike, they got much more than educational experience, and science wouldn’t be the only thing Bowman boiled down. After offering some background and a quick tree-tapping tutorial, Bowman led the group outdoors.

“Anybody know how to ID a maple tree?” Bowman asked.

Crickets.

Well, she explained, the most reliable way to identify red and sugar maples is by looking at their leaves. Maple trees bear five-pointed leaves, she said, but it’s winter, so that method wouldn’t serve them.

Trees can be identified by their branches, Bowman said, with some having alternate or opposite branching. Maple trees have opposite branches, she said, meaning side branches grow directly opposite each other.

Now that the group — which consisted of young children, teens and adults — knew how to spot a maple tree, it was off to the sugar bush area of the park.

The group traversed a small, swampy roadside area before scaling a hill and coming to a halt in a pitched wooded area. Bowman already had some maples tapped, with aluminum buckets and lids hanging from the tree spouts.

The naturalist retrieved her hand-crank drill and asked for volunteers. Haley Miller, 16, of Sykesville, stepped up. Bowman steadied the drill as Haley cranked.

After drilling an approximately 2-inch hole, they removed the drill and sap started to flow. Bowman asked for a volunteer to hammer in the stud.

Crickets, again.

“You get to hit a tree with a hammer, go ahead,” said Tim Miller, encouraging his daughters to get involved.

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Bowman set up the stud, connected the sap spile — a hollowed tube that acts as a spout — and hung up the bucket from the red maple tree. A clear liquid indistinguishable from water poured from the spout.

“Anyone want to try it?” she asked.

“It tastes like water,” 13-year-old Ava Miller said.

Sap, as it turns out, is mostly water. It contains about 3 percent sugar, Bowman explained. Making one gallon of syrup from a red maple takes about 50 gallons of sap, she said.

“You wouldn’t really expect syrup to come from water,” Haley added.

After the group tapped two trees, patience ran thin and the prospect of syrup was tempting.

A dutch oven boiling over a wood fire awaited the group back at the nature center. Steam smelling of maple evaporated into the February afternoon air.

If you try this at home, Bowman told the crowd, don’t do it inside or you’ll end up with sticky walls.

Contained in the dutch oven was a previous day’s haul of sap. Sap needs to be boiled down to 66.9 percent sugar, which means the sap needs to reach 219 degrees. “Labor intensive,” Bowman warned.

The group left the sap simmering and went indoors around 2:30 p.m., where a sugary treat awaited: sugar on the snow. Bowman had cranked up the temperature for a different pot of sap to the 235 degrees necessary to produce maple candy.

She poured the piping hot maple over craft sticks contained in a tray of crushed ice. The sugar substance hardens quickly and can be rolled into a lollipop-like treat.

Was that the best part of the day?

“I’d have to say, yeah,” said 16-year-old Will Grieves, of Westminster. “It’s actually pretty good.”

The Miller girls were so enthused, they suggested they try making their own syrup and maple candy at home.

“Do what?” Tim Miller asked, concerned about his trees.

“Tap our trees,” answered Haley.

“We have a fire pit and a dutch oven,” said their mother, Jordyn Miller.

Maple Magic had cast its sugary spell.

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