Recent weather has been ideal for collecting maple sap. Ranger Chuck Bowler says that with above-freezing temperatures during the late winter days, the trees "think it's spring" and send stored sugar - sap - from the roots. When bark temperatures drop below 32 degrees at night, the trees try to protect themselves by sending it back. The taps get the sap coming and going, Bowler says. The season ends when the trees begin to bud.
A hole is drilled three or four inches into the tree at a slight upward angle. A metal tap - also called a spile - is inserted in the hole. It's OK to tap trees larger than 10 inches around.
Generally, an additional tap may be added for each additional five inches of diameter. The tap has a hook for hanging a bucket, and the forces of gravity and negative tension will fill it with maple sap - a colorless, watery solution containing sugar and various acids and salts. The amount of sap produced depends on the weather and the tree - from nothing to 10 gallons a day, Bowler says.
But it's not syrup yet. The sap - which is about 2 percent sugar - must be boiled down to produce the 66 percent sugar syrup. About 40 gallons of sap are needed to produce one gallon of syrup. Commercial producers use plastic tubing to carry sap to evaporators in sugarhouses. Cunningham Falls rangers will be making syrup by the batch, heating it in a iron kettle over a fire. It takes several hours. To remove impurities, the finished syrup is filtered through cheesecloth. The rangers' brochure advises that the syrup must be packaged at a temperature of at least 180 degrees to prevent spoilage.
Although health regulations prohibit the sale of the maple sugar and syrup made at the park, Catoctin Mountains Tourist Council will be on hand to give out free samples of Maryland-made maple syrup. Sales of maple candies, syrup and taps will benefit the park's Tourist Information Center.