This past Saturday, Hopkins Forest held its annual Maplefest, a celebration of the treats found right here in the New England forests. Open and free to the public, Maplefest has been a day looked forward to by students and families alike for many years. For generations, the late winter sugaring season has been a time for people to come together and cook maple syrup, and every year the Hopkins Memorial Forest does just that on this day of celebration. Though this year’s festival was a particularly cold one, the usual festivities went on. Attendees enjoyed maple on ice, pancakes and maple syrup taste tests, honoring the old Yankee tradition of producing home-grown sweeteners and inviting other community members to take part in the process. Typically, the best time for syrup producers to tap has been in March; as the days grow longer and warmer, sap begins to flow upward from the sugar maple’s roots to begin to support the newly developing buds. In New England, syrup producers have tapped the same trees for generations, refining the process to arrive at the one used today.
In the sugar house, participants could learn to boil and bottle the syrup themselves, try their hands at tapping for sap and learn about the historical processes of making maple syrup, overseen by Drew Jones, the manager of Hopkins Memorial Forest. The sugar house used to this day was built by students at the College interested in the process in the mid-1980s in a maple grove used for sugaring ever since. Visitors to the festival had the opportunity to watch and participate in the syrup-cooking process, reducing the sugar maple sap to sweet syrup.
Across from the sugar house, a station was set up by a nearby wooden building where pancakes were cooked by students, oil popping in the cold weather and plates continually filled by hungry visitors. Inside, College students Phacelia Cramer ’19, Max Harmon ’18.5 and Eliza Klein ’19 sat around the wood burning stove drinking hot drinks, eating pancakes and swapping stories about college and family. The three of them had run there together, and another friend of theirs had biked. All expressed their love for the festival, bemoaning the cold and wishing that more people had braved the weather to attend. Others soon took their seats by the fire – mothers with children, outdoor enthusiasts and students alike. People wore knitted beanies, heavy jackets and thick boots, and children ran up and down the stairs to the second floor, looking out at the stream and hemlock grove beyond. There was a kind of communal air to the place, as people took time to quietly eat hot food around the warmth or look out at the light flurries outside. Inside the nearby Rosenberg Center, a tree identification station was set up alongside a syrup taste-testing station, where people could learn about syrup making and take a break from the cold outdoors.
Ashok Rai, professor of economics at the College, brought his daughters along to enjoy some sweet treats in the cold at this year’s Maplefest. He said that they have come to Maplefest six or seven times over the past dozen years and that it has become one of his daughters’ favorite events. Yeshe Rai, who is 9, said that her favorite treat there, the maple syrup over ice, reminded her of caramel and made her “think of wanting more of it.” Maple syrup production has a strong tradition in the Northeast and has been a fixture of the College for decades. At this time of year, when spring can feel so far from our grasp, the annual movement of sugar maple sap from deep in the earth to the outermost branches in preparation for new growth is a reminder that we, like the trees, have a period of warmth and growth ahead of us to look forward to.