Maple sugaring at Parker Dam State Park
By Eric Rensel
March is maple sugaring season at Parker Dam State Park in northern Clearfield County near Penfield, PA, part of the Pennsylvania Wilds Elk Country landscape. Every Saturday and Sunday in March at 2:00 PM park staff explain what is so special about making pure maple syrup in the park. During the week days the park schedules school groups to visit the sugaring operation.
Students from a private school in Pittsburgh were enjoying listening to the park educators explain how maple sugaring came about, how it was done historically, and how folks can make maple syrup today – small scale or large scale. One student raises his hand to ask a question, and the educator pauses to take the question. A short conversation ensues until the student is clear on the topic.
During the section of the program explaining how sap moves through “solid” wood, small wood wafers are passed around for the students to see how sap can indeed pass through the tiny capillaries in the wood – they hold the wafer up to a bright light and realize that they can see through it.
The program then moves up into the sugar woods, where there are many sap buckets hanging on trees, along with a few maple trees that have not been tapped yet. The students will have to select an appropriate tree to tap as part of the program. They soon point out a nice red maple tree, and the educator shows them where to drill, how deep to drill, how to clean out the tap hole, and how to properly place the spile and hang the bucket. Sap begins to drip out of the newly tapped tree and “pings” into the bucket – a traditional sound of the spring sugar woods.
They then travel back down to the sugar shack, where the collected sap is turned into pure maple syrup. Park staff explain the evaporator, the reverse osmosis system, the filter press, bottling tank, and so on. And at the end of the program, as is tradition, all the students receive a taste sample of pure maple syrup made in the park. All agree that it was fantastic.
(Photos above depict Dale Miller of Miller’s Purely Maple, part of the Creative Makers of the PA Wilds Exhibit series.)
What is unusual about this particular maple sugaring program at Parker Dam is that the students were still in their classroom in Pittsburgh, and the park educators were in their park over 100 miles away. The program was being conducted virtually through the use of the park’s “Distance Learning System” – an iPad, remote microphone and speaker, and a cellular hotspot that provided the WiFi signal. A package of props, including sample cups and a bottle of the park’s pure maple syrup, had been sent to the school prior to the program date so that they could get hands-on, or perhaps tongue-on, with the park’s maple sugaring program.
The concept of using distance learning to conduct maple sugaring programs began after park staff had observed the Elk Country Visitor Center staff conducting their elk education distance learning programs with schools. The program was surprisingly interactive – it was like looking through a little window into the classroom. How would it be if we could take Parker Dam’s maple sugaring operation – trees, sugar shack, evaporator – into a classroom? The potential for reaching new audiences was very interesting.
Challenge: Parker Dam State Park has limited cellular signal. Speed checks on both Verizon and AT&T equipment (borrowed) were conducted in the maple sugaring programming area. The results showed that the signal in the sugar woods where we tap our trees was good, but coverage at the sugar shack just down the hill was marginal. Solution: The park installed a cell signal booster on top of the sugar shack with the broadcast antennae inside the building, which provided the speed needed.
The next challenge was to get the Bureau of State Parks on board with using technology, specifically an iPad connected to the internet, in a park setting. Fortunately, the Bureau had been looking at piloting the use of iPads in some select State Parks, and Parker Dam was able to get the equipment needed to conduct distance learning in 2016. The first distance learning maple sugaring program was conducted on March 23, 2017 – to the science classroom where the daughter of one of the park staff attended. And it worked.
Participation has been increasing steadily each sugaring season since the distance learning sessions began, reaching classrooms in Millerstown, Brookville, Clarion University, Pittsburgh, and other locations. The participating students get to see, hear, taste, and get hands-on with some sugaring props, but they are missing something. My favorite something about sugaring – the awesome maple smell of the hot evaporator. A smell that makes the teeth tingle. Some things technology just can’t do yet.
The potential exists to conduct other interpretive programs through the distance learning system, but the park only has signal in a few select locations, so for now we are limited to the sugar woods area. The bulk of the park’s programming is targeted to the physical visitors, but being able to reach out to new virtual (are they?) audiences that might never have had the opportunity to visit the park or attend a program in person is a way to perhaps entice new physical visitors to the park.
If your classroom would like to experience the park’s maple sugaring program, you have a choice – contact the park to set up a distance learning session during the sugaring season – or make the trip to the park to experience it in person, and perhaps get your teeth to tingle. Contact Parker Dam State Park: (814)765-0630 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Author: Eric Rensel is a Natural Resource Specialist at Parker Dam State Park in northern Clearfield County.
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