I love maple syrup. It’s sticky, honey-brown, delicious on pancakes with sausages and I couldn’t be luckier that nearly 100% of all the maple syrup in the world is made within a day’s drive from my own front yard.
Usually, the first week in April has hubby and I driving to his hometown of Elmira, ON for the annual Maple Syrup Festival. We love the pickles on a stick, huge turkey legs and of course – the plethora of baked goods drizzled with Maple Syrup. This year, however, we elected for a different syrupy experience – being new to Burlington we decided to head to the Mountsberg Conservation Area to experience Maple Town.
Year-round people visit the Mountsberg Conservation Area for its Discovery Centre and Birds of Prey Sanctuary and every year from March – April they tap over 600 Maple Trees and open Maple Town. Thousands of gallons of maple sap is collected from the sugar bush and made into Maple Syrup that they sell on-site and serve with pancakes in the Pancake House.
The day we visited was sunny but still pretty cold – pretty par for the course this blustery winter. Usually by the beginning of April the sap from the maple trees has been flowing for a few weeks but this winter the sap has been hard to collect because the winter has been so cold. Perfect conditions for maple sap to flow is when temperatures at night do not dip any lower than -5 and during the day don’t go much over +8. Why – you ask? Well, these temperatures let the trees know that spring is on the way but aren’t too hot that the trees actually start budding – as soon as the trees start budding the sap stops flowing and maple syrup season is officially over until next year.
When you arrive at Mountsberg you have to pay entry into the Conservation Area because it is part of the Halton Conservation parks system. It was $7.50 per person for adults and about half that for children. There is a large parking lot and the Discovery Center with Gift Shop to greet you when you arrive. The Birds of Prey Center was open and hosing Birds of Prey Shows every hour on the hour. There were rabbits and horses in the barnyard and the old barn – called the Cameron Farmyard – rigged into a great playground for kids was being enjoyed by more than a few families. It was nice to see so many people there enjoying the morning.
To get to Maple Town you have to cross the train-tracks towards the birding boardwalk. The boardwalk was iced over at the beginning of April so we didn’t investigate but we will definitely be back with binoculars another day. A little farther down the path we arrived in Maple Town – a grove of incredibly tall Maple Trees all tapped and decorated with blue buckets to collect sap. Hubby and I walked through the Sugar Bush Trivia Trail where you can see and read facts and answer trivia about Maple Syrup. I was exceedingly proud to read about the oldest maple tree in Canada called the Comfort Maple just outside of Fonthill (a stones-throw from where I used to live in Niagara). It’s interesting to me that 95% of all the Maple Syrup in Canada is made in Quebec but that the oldest Maple Tree is in little old Niagara, Ontario.
I was also interested to learn that there is as much calcium in Maple Syrup as there is in whole milk!
The day before we went to Mountsberg it had warmed up a little and the staff at Maple Town had collected 400 gallons of sap from the buckets on the trees and were boiling it into syrup in the Sugar Shanty. After finishing the Maple Trail the Shanty is your most likely next stop – not only is it the first building you come across but the smell of boiling sap will likely entice you inside anyways. There you can talk to the Maple Syrup Technicians about how the sap is boiled, for how long and how different syrups are graded by their colour. There are also some historical pictures on the walls that tell the story of how sap was collected and boiled in the past.
If you’re interested in seeing how far technology has come there are actually examples of different systems from the Aboriginals, the Pioneers and a small version of the first flat-pan boiler, which is a small scale of what we use today. Like a Taiwanese cooking documentary that I saw not too long ago, the Aboriginals used to boil the sap by heating rocks on a fire and then adding them to a hollowed-out log with sap in it. Adding rocks over and over again boiled off much of the water leaving the syrup behind. As you can imagine, this process was pretty labour intensive. It was the pioneers who first tried to boil the sap in large cast-iron vats over a fire. It definitely didn’t take as long as the Aboriginals did by heating rocks, but their large pots had so much surface area that it still took longer than what everyone wanted to wait to enjoy Maple Syrup. And so, the flat-pan boiler was born and is still, essentially, what we use today.
Right next to the boiling cast-iron pots you’ll find the Candy Cabin where Mountsberg staff will show you how to make maple syrup candies in your own kitchen. Really, it isn’t too difficult. Maple Syrup merely needs to be boiled to even further reduce the water content in order to be poured into a mold and made into candy. Boil maple syrup on your stove in a pot and after about 10-15 minutes, remove it from the heat and whisk until it’s the consistency of warm peanut butter – once that consistency pour into a silicon mold and let it sit for a few minutes until cool. VOILA – maple candy. There was plenty of this on hand for the kids (and adults) wanting samples and probably a little too easy to make at home for my liking.
After gorging on a little bit of candy we decided to buy tickets for the horse-drawn wagon ride. If I remember correctly, adults are $3.00 each and children are $2.00 each – it’s a great price. The horses are very big and strong and had to be in order to move many gallons of maple syrup through the bush. About 20 of us fit on the wagon that was hitched and harnessed to the horses and the ride lasted around 10 minutes. While discovering the bush a knowledgeable guide told us all about harvesting sap and boiling maple syrup and talked about the trees and answered any questions the kids had. It was a simple yet fun trip and one of the highlights of my visit to Mountsberg.
After finishing on the wagon we decided that our trip to Maple Town wouldn’t be complete without a pancake and some sausages from the Pancake House. For a few dollars we sat down to some of the biggest pancakes I’ve ever seen, sausages, maple syrup and a hot cup of apple cider. The facilities aren’t anything to write home about – the Pancake House is essentially a park pavilion fit with a wood burning stove and plexiglass windows to keep the wind out, but the meal definitely makes up for it.
It takes 40 buckets of sap to produce just 1 bucket of syrup!
Having seen all there is to see in Maple Town we crossed the tracks back towards the Discovery Centre and decided to end our afternoon with the last Birds of Prey show of the day. In the Centre for Birds of Prey we met Lara – one of the trainers/ care-givers for the raptors – and a few of her flying companions. My favourite bird of the show was a red-tailed hawk who was rescued after being shot in her left wing. Each show features two raptors so you could go to show after show and never see the same bird in a day.
Having come into the show a little late we decided to stay and talk with Lara for a little while and we were lucky enough to meet quite a rare little bird who doesn’t usually appear at the Birds of Prey show because he really doesn’t love people all that much – their resident Merlin named Scout. He is beautiful and my hubby’s bird of 2014 – he is determined to see one in the wild this year. After chatting with Lara and Merlin we walked around the sanctuary and saw and took pictures of and with many of the other birds there including a few Bald Eagles, their Golden Eagle, more Red-Tailed Hawks, a Horned Owl, a Peregrin Falcon, and my favourite – the American Kestrel.
To say that our day at the Mountsberg Conservation Area was an adventure would be an understatement. We will most certainly be going back and will have my nieces in tow. And, did I mention that your entry fee will also get you into the nearby Crawford Lake Conservation Area as well? Well, it does! Kudos to the Halton Conservation Authority of their great work on sites like this one, I cannot wait to check out some others.