Most of the year, Downs Memorial Park in Pasadena welcomes campers, picnickers and concertgoers. But in February and March, it's taken over by a dozen volunteers whose outdoor pastime goes back to Colonial days: "Old Fashioned Maple Syrup Makin'."
"It takes about 60 gallons [of sap] to make 1 gallon of syrup," said Chuck Jochen, 60, a retired federal government worker from Pasadena who's into sap.
Colonists learned to make syrup from Native Americans, who used birchbark buckets to collect sap, then added heated rocks to condense the sap into syrup because they did not have containers that could withstand fire. Most people today don't eat real maple syrup; commercial brands are made largely of corn syrup.
Jochen and his colleagues are better-equipped than colonists but otherwise do things the same way. The experience of collecting sap from trees in the park and boiling it down to syrup over a stove in the park's pavilion is its own reward.
'To have a good time'
"The whole purpose is to have a good time," said David L. Brown, 63, a retired Bethlehem Steel worker who lives in Long Point.
Wearing knee-high rubber boots, he and Jochen recently showed a visitor how it's done.
They traipsed along the muddy, meandering trails of the 230-acre park, stopping at some of the 200 red maples. Red maples give a sap less sweet than that of Vermont's sugar maples. Although leafless, the maples were easy enough to spot: They were the ones with clear gallon jugs hanging from their trunks.
The jugs are held up by spigots through which sap flows from the trees into the jugs. Jochen grabbed some jugs from a cluster of trees and dumped the sap into a 5-gallon bucket while Brown did the same to other trees.
The sap is a translucent, bubbly fluid, like soapy dishwater. Some trees yield a trickle, others as much a gallon of sap a day.
"Trees are like people," Jochen said. "They're individuals and they do what they want to do."
The volunteers came across one half-filled jug speckled with floating ants. "They like the sweetness, I guess," Brown observed. "They'll crawl up a tree and fly into the milk jug."
Maple trees yield sap in February and early March, especially on days when temperatures drop below freezing at night, then climb into the 40s during the day, Jochen said.
He and Brown poured their 5-gallon containers into a green rubber garbage bucket in the bed of Brown's Nissan pickup truck, then drove to the nearby Sugar Shack, the pavilion in the heart of the park. A sign hangs from the 24-inch-by-24-inch partially enclosed shack announcing "Old Fashioned Maple Syrup Makin'."
That's where they transformed sap into syrup last weekend and will do so again Saturday and Sunday. They pour the sap -- through screens and cotton cloth, to remove the insects -- into a large metal evaporation tray that rests over a hot brick stove, then heat it until only syrup remains.
"We're just removing the water until we get to the sugar," said Downs Memorial Park Ranger Bill Offutt, who started the volunteer project last year. "When we're getting toward the syrup, we put that in a shallow pan and finish it over a gas barbecue grill" on a low flame.
Finally, the volunteers will filter the thick, dark-brown syrup through lamb's wool and pour it into sterilized quart Mason jars labeled "Downs Park Special Red" after the park's red maple trees. It can take all day to make a few gallons.
Offutt recruited about a dozen volunteers last year, and they tapped about 100 trees and boiled the sap down to about 7 gallons of syrup. This year, many volunteers returned to tap twice as many trees -- and will take home what they make. They give visitors a taste, however.
Volunteers will demonstrate collecting sap and boiling it to syrup Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m. at Downs Memorial Park, which charges $4 admission per car.
Pub Date: 2/21/97