The sweet history behind maple syrup

It started about 500 years ago in Michigan

The weather can be frustrating this time of year. One day you need your winter coat because it’s freezing, the next day the sun is out and you’re walking the dog with a short-sleeved shirt on.

While this may be annoying, it is perfect for one thing - making maple syrup! The sweet treat that pairs perfectly with pancakes actually has a long history in Michigan, and you can learn all about it at the Oakwoods Metropark in New Boston.

We spoke to Kevin Arnold, the Southern District Interpretive Supervisor for the Huron-Clinton Metroparks, to learn all about the history.

According to him, maple sugaring started with our indigenous population roughly 500 years ago. At the park, you can spot a wigwam, a common dwelling you would find in a sugaring village. Based on the season, Native Americans would move around, and in the early spring, they would head to the sugar bush -- an area densely populated with sugar maples.

They collected the sap by cutting a gash into the tree and having it pour into a birch back basket called a makuk. They would store the sap in a hollowed-out log and would either wait for the water to freeze and remove it, or boil out the water using hot stones. This would leave a fine powder of maple sugar that they used as a commodity.

When the early settlers came, they learned about maple sugaring from the native population and used some of their own tools to collect it. Instead of slicing the tree, they drilled into it using an auger, and would put in a sumac spile for the sap to flow out of into a metal bucket.

Outside their cabins, they would set up a kettle over a fire and they would slowly reduce the sap until it had a syrupy consistency. They would keep the fires going all day long to create a very dark maple syrup.

Modernly, we use a lot of the same method but have more advanced tools. On average, it takes 40 gallons of sap from a sugar maple to make one gallon of syrup.

There are six total Metroparks with maple sugaring programming. Each Metropark handles the program differently, with some delving into the science behind it, while others focus more on the syrup-making process. You can find their guided programs here.

If you would like to explore things yourself, there is also a self-guided tour you can follow through the woods. Signs marked with QR codes will allow you to watch educational videos as you travel along the path.

After your trek through the woods, you can warm up and learn more at Oakwoods’ newly revamped nature center. The theme is “The Huron River, a Timeless Resource” and features some live animals and displays showcasing the nature you can find along the Huron River. There is also a display on the Wyandot people, who lived on a reservation in the area from 1818 to 1842. The exhibit was a collaboration between the tribe and the Metropark.

For more information on the Metropark’s maple sugaring programs, and for the park nearest you, click or tap here.