Students tap into tradition at Michigan subarbush
By Charlie Otto Rasmussen, Staff Writer
LVD Old Village, Mich.—Shrouded in heavy steam that billowed from a rolling froth, the iron and steel hulk might pass for a scaled-down Civil War battleship. Tina LaBine approached, sidestepping a large stack of split firewood, and peered over the metal sidewall.
"Howah, we got a boil!" LaBine called.
Standing nearby over a collection of blue plastic tubs, Ron White craned his head and nodded. Kids of all ages emerged from the interface of maple forest and a blacktopped neighborhood to witness the transformation of watery sap to prized syrup: zhiwaagamizigan, the original sweetener of Woodland Indian nations.
After five days of collecting maple sap from an uneven landscape pocked with meltwater, the students from the Watersmeet area were gratified. "It's fun but it's hard work," said 16-year-old Tawnie Demaray. "No matter what, your feet always get wet."
Within a 40-acre stand of Ottawa National Forest hardwood, students selected large maples, placed asemaa offerings on the ground, and camp personnel helped drive nearly 100 taps into the mature trees. From each tap students hung a plastic bag to capture dripping sap; the flow spurred by warm days and cold nights. After school they hopped a passenger van bound for the sugarbush to transfer small bags of sap into holding tubs.
"When we started, the snow was deep and those kids were out there hauling sap every night," said Mike Hazen Sr., one of a half-dozen camp leaders from Lac Vieux Desert.
The weeklong mid-March camp grew from a WK Kellogg "Forest Futures" grant awarded to the Lac Vieux Desert Tribe. Forest Futures coordinator Jessica Majeske assembled a knowledgeable cast of community members to assist, including Tribal Council member, Hazen, along with Ron White, Joyce Davis, Wade Wiartalla, and Roger LaBine.
"We had a great group of adults that helped make the sugarbush a success," said Majeske. "It was quite an experience for the kids to see the whole process from start to finish."
Finishing required the daylong boil of nearly 200 gallons of sap in the wood-fired evaporator LaBine retrieved from southern Wisconsin. Under steady heat, the sap shed much of its water weight, leaving behind a pale golden reward. Like many sugarbushes, the Ottawa site yielded syrup at a 40:1 ratio.
Asked how their pure maple syrup measured up to the corn syrup-laden industry brands sold at stores: "Our stuff is fresh and natural," said 11–year-old Dominique Spolarich. "It's way better!" At a pancake breakfast prepared by students, parents and community members agreed. There's nothing like the real thing.
Camp leaders are counting on that enthusiasm to boost interest in sugarbushing in the years ahead.
"The kids are loving it. They'll be back next year and they'll bring their friends," said LaBine. "We're keeping the tradition alive out here."
With winter checking out of the upper Great Lakes region close to a month early, sugarbush harvesters were left guessing when, or if, maple sap would flow. Maple tappers from Mille Lacs, Red Cliff, and Bay Mills—communities that pan the ceded territories—report poor weather conditions and marginal sap flow.
"It was a very bad year for us," said Paula Carrick, who has a sugarbush at Bay Mills with her siblings Joe Carrick and Wanda Perron. "We ended up with less than a gallon of sap. It was dark sap and quickly went sour."
The 2012 sugarbush season lacked the more-or-less reliable pattern of freezing night temps that warmed back up during the daytime. Freezing and thawing temperatures create a pump effect, forcing downward-moving sap out through temporary taps.
The US Forest Service and Ojibwe treaty tribes cooperatively develop sugarbushes on ceded territory National Forest land. At Lac Vieux Desert's Old Village site—known as the Maple Leaf Drive Sugarbush—planners laid out guidelines for everything from harvest equipment to land use. For more information on setting up a National Forest sugarbush see the Tribal-USDA-Forest Service MOU available at www.glifwc.org or by calling GLIFWC Forest Ecologist Alex Wrobel 715.682.6619.