When I think of maple syrup, visions of cold, dense New England forests come to mind. I see flannel-clad woodsmen traversing the undeveloped rolling mountains of a place much different from our own Lehigh Valley. Little did I know of the sweet possibilities that exist within the state of Pennsylvania!
Since 1999, my husband and I have escaped to a little-known destination called Hills Creek State Park, a 407-acre park located in north central PA near Wellsboro.
The PA state park system is phenomenal and was recently awarded the honor of being the best in the nation. Hills Creek is just one of over 130 parks within the system.
We love the simplicity of renting a cabin, building a campfire and absorbing the sights and sounds of this picturesque part of our country. The air seems cleaner, the stars brighter. The days roll by with no obligations other than when to eat, sleep, read the next chapter or take another hike.
This particular weekend was our 23rd trip to the Hills Creek area. However it was the first time we were fortunate enough to experience a free maple syrup demonstration by the state park rangers.
Just when I thought I knew a little something about this part of PA, I was shocked to learn that maple syrup is a big pastime for folks around here.
Making note of my surroundings as we drove the winding back roads to enter the park, several lines of tubing could be spotted. Signs for maple products were randomly posted on wooden stakes throughout the countryside.
When we saw the flyer for the free demonstration at Hills Creek, we knew it had to be part of our weekend plans.
A lively park ranger named Tim discussed the sugaring process to our small group.
Native Americans began harvesting sap when they realized the potential these local trees offered during a season when other crops weren’t feasible. The simple act of drilling a hole into the maple trees (preferably sugar maples) resulted in a yield, which today brings in approximately $40-50/gallon.
Sap runs through plastic tubing to a collection point, or in some cases, a simple bucket. Once a sufficient amount of sap has been collected, it is poured into a large metal pan, which is heated by flames. Sap consists of more than 90% water, which must be boiled off. What remain are mostly sugars from the sap … or what we know as ‘syrup’.
The process is time-sensitive. There are only several weeks each year during which maple syrup can be processed. Late winter, when daytime temperatures exceed freezing, but nighttime temps fall below the 30s, is typically when the best maple syrup is made.
This free demonstration was extremely educational for both our children and us. My oldest son, Addison, had the opportunity to drill the hole and tap the tree. My youngest son, Weston, was asked to put the metal hood on the collection bucket to prevent any rainwater from falling into the sap.
Our boys will forever remember that day … and now want to tap every maple tree on our property!
During this last trip, we spotted the state tree (eastern hemlock), the state flower (mountain laurel) and the state bird (ruffed grouse), which happened to have a nest just outside of our cabin door.
We woke to the sounds of his beating wings every morning as he established his territory for the new season. Addison was so inspired by his uniqueness that he decided to draw a picture of him.
We traversed beaver lodges, identified trees by their needles and leaves, and pondered which variety of woodpecker had gone to work on a lone pine. This is education at its best.
The PA state parks are an invaluable resource to all of us. Perhaps we don’t realize the benefits they offer, but I encourage you to do some research and become familiar with the state parks in our area.
Most of them offer hiking trails, fishing, swimming, boating and picnic areas. Many offer camping, including primitive tent camping as well as rustic and modern cabins at affordable prices.
In a time when so many people are being impacted by the economy, state parks are a perfect option for family vacations or weekend getaways. For less than $200, a family of six can rent a modern two-bedroom cabin for the weekend. During the week, it’s under $60 per night. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, cabins are rented by the week for less than $500.
Some of our most special moments together as a family are those we’ve shared at Hills Creek State Park. It brings us back to what’s important.
Addison says his favorite things are running free through the woods, exploring the local beaver dams, and sitting by the campfire at night. Weston loves looking for marshmallow sticks and skipping stones on the 137-acre lake.
There’s a freedom there that allows us to open our souls to what’s real and true. There’s a peace there that keeps us disconnected from the hectic nature of our wired lives.
The hope is that our government continues to see the value in parks such as Hills Creek so our children and generations to come will have the same precious opportunities to experience these places of natural beauty.
To learn more about our local state parks, visit www.visitPAparks.com or call 888-PA-PARKS.