A horse drawn wagon, flannel shirts, floppy eared caps, smiling faces, the smell of fresh pancakes, and sweet maple syrup.
Nope. Fort Stevenson State Park a few miles south of Garrison. Standing under one of the park’s most reliable box elder trees, Park Manager Chad Trautman, was talking to park visitors.
“I know. We’re crazy,” said Trautman. “We just really enjoy the tapping of trees and trying to take advantage of the opportunity nature has to offer us. Fort Stevenson has box elder trees. You can tap box elder trees to make maple syrup.”
Darned if those North Dakota trees don’t produce some great syrup too. Visitors to Maple Sugaring Day on April 8 showed their skepticism, and their surprise, when sampling syrup derived from trees within the park.
“We tap two different kinds of trees, the box elder and the silver maple,” explained Terry Smith, Ft. Stevenson State Park. “We’re happy to have both those kinds of trees in the park and share the experience with people that come out for it. It’s pretty unique.”
Yes it is, and pretty sweet too. The silver maple trees produce syrup with a higher sugar content than the box elders, one syrup a bit darker than the other, but both wonderfully flavorful and a perfect complement to the outdoor pancake and sausage breakfast that is a popular attraction at Maple Sugaring Day.
Inside a large tent, families were comfortably seated near large heaters that kept away the slight chill of the morning. Of course, the real treat was the topping on the pancakes – maple syrup tapped from nearby trees.
It was Trautman who first attempted drawing sap from the park’s trees and boiling it down to syrup. That was in 2014, but even he had his doubts about the results.
“We thought, we can’t invite the public out here and find out this stuff tastes like mud or something. So, we sampled it ourselves,” recalled Trautman. “The proof was in the pudding. After the first sample I knew this was some really good stuff and we should be sharing.”
Since that first Maple Sugaring Day hosted by Fort Stevenson State Park the event has grown considerably. The clippety-clop a team of horses pulling a wagon load of park visitors attests to that, several of whom attend the event to learn more about the process of tapping trees and making syrup.
“This does draw a lot of people. What I really enjoy is other people experiencing it, boiling down their own syrup,” said Trautman. “It’s really fun to hear they are enjoying it and taking part in the process as well.”
At the time of this year’s event the trees in the park were not running any sap. The late spring didn’t produce warm enough daytime temperatures, a situation Trautman called “disappointing”. However, the park staff had saved plenty of syrup from the previous year to have enough on hand for everyone to enjoy.
“That’s how the maple syrup process goes. We can’t do anything about that,” explained Trautman.
No matter. Visitors were able to see trees that were tapped, waiting for warm days and cool nights to get the sap running. And there were sweet samples, those pancakes in the fresh air, and a friendly atmosphere that brought a festive feel to an April day outdoors in North Dakota.