Ironwood Maine Web Update

Around this time of year, the maple trees start to wake up from their winter slumber and each maple tree sends sap up from the roots to the rest of the tree. This sugary sap helps the tree to start putting out buds and leaves, so that the tree can be ready to start out for the year. This sap, particularly that of the sugar maple, can be collected and boiled down into delicious maple syrup.  This time of year, when the temperatures fluctuate around freezing, is the perfect time for maple sugaring. The sap flows most effectively when it is below freezing at night and above freezing during the day. With this opportunity, we have recently begun our maple sugaring enrichment program.

Residents at all campuses partake in maple sugaring.  Throughout the week, different groups go down to the “sugar bush”  to work on the maple sugaring project. We usually have either one of our behavioral staff who is experienced in maple sugaring, or an outside instructor to lead the process. Residents and staff who were present for sugaring the previous year often also take a role in mentoring newer residents on the process. In the sugar bush, we have numerous sugar maple trees, which residents drill holes in and hammer taps into to collect maple sap. This does no significant harm to the tree, which can heal the holes. Residents hang buckets from the taps, which collect the sap as it slowly drips out of the taps and place lids on the buckets in order to prevent contamination of the sap. Often, hundreds of taps and buckets are put out to collect the sap. Every couple of days, we empty these buckets through a filter into a large tank, slowly collecting over a hundred gallons of sap and, depending on the year, residents may even collect enough to fill the tank up to its 350 gallon capacity. This goes on until the sap stops flowing, which occurs when the trees have fully settled in to spring.

After the sap is no longer flowing, we begin the boiling process. It takes about forty gallons of raw sap to produce one gallon of finished maple syrup. It may seem like an unreasonable amount of sap to make the syrup, but we collect a lot of sap, usually enough to make several gallons of syrup. The process of boiling the syrup is done in our Sugar Shack which, many years ago, was built by Ironwood residents. The Shack is a building with vents at the top. It also contains a large metal wood stove that, with an extremely hot flame, slowly boils the water and minerals away from the sap which is kept in a series of chambers behind the stove. Boiling the sap also gets rid of any microbes that may be present. This roaring fire must be constantly tended and monitored to prevent the syrup from burning. Needless to say, due to the dangerous nature of this and the constant maintenance that is needed, residents do not directly partake in the boiling of the sap, and we have the instructor do this. Residents do, however, bring wood down to fuel the fire, as well as other supplies for the instructor. Since the instructor cannot leave the fire for extended lengths of time, the fire is put out for the night. Residents also use this time to start cleaning up. Buckets, taps, and lids are removed, thoroughly cleaned, and put away. After the boiling is done, we generally end up with several gallons of amazing syrup. Then, we thoroughly clean out the boiling equipment and the Sugar Shack. The trees are allowed to heal, and can be tapped again the next year.

This process benefits everyone involved. Residents learn the value of investing hard work into a project, while also enjoying some of our amazing syrup with their breakfast pancakes!  It also provides an enriching opportunity to learn about the trees and nature. For families, it allows them to receive a more well-rounded individual when their child graduates and it is an experience that they will love hearing about. For staff, it provides an opportunity to go out and do something fun with the residents. Although some residents are sometimes reluctant to partake in the work, or are impatient with the boiling process, overall, the activity is received very well on campus. It is also viewed as a fun and enriching opportunity to be outdoors and work towards a goal.

Generally speaking, many concepts from the experience can be applied to life outside of Ironwood. From diving deeper into this activity, I learned that, aside from providing stories, memories and some really good syrup, maple sugaring offers an opportunity to see the value of hard work and how it is rewarded, and to see how long-term projects have high yields. Each bucket of sap is a small step towards a bigger goal, much like how residents at Ironwood take many small steps toward the end goal of graduation. Furthermore, it instills a deeper understanding of nature and gives us more respect towards the natural world.

It is my hope in writing this that all of you readers can take away not only what it is that we do with maple sugaring, but also how this activity affects the residents at Ironwood and contributes to the progress that we make here.

*Thank you to this Farmhouse resident author, who was very focused this week on making sure that he adequately illustrated to parents, the process of sugaring.  The taps are flowing and that means that SPRING IS ON THE WAY.  We wish you all a restful weekend, as we continue the hard work that is “Ironwood”.