FORT DRUM, N.Y. (March 26, 2019) -- The sweetest smelling steam was billowing out of Fort Drum's Sugar Shack on March 23, enticing community members to experience the first of two Maple Days hosted by the Natural Resources team.

This family-friendly annual outing featured an educational tour where attendees could learn the history of the maple syrup industry and about Fort Drum's sugar bush. Demonstrations allowed spectators to see how sap is boiled down into syrup, and they could taste the final product.

Amy Stiefel, Fort Drum forester, explained how any grove of sugar maple trees is commonly referred to as a sugar bush, and the one at Fort Drum used to be part of a thriving industry in the state.

"When the settlers first came to this area, almost all of New York was just one giant forest, and they quickly learned the importance of these sugar maple stands," she said. "The early settlers were taught by the Native Americans how to make maple syrup."

Stiefel said that, according to legend, maple syrup originated when a local tribe member was throwing a tomahawk into a tree for target practice.

"A little while later, his wife discovered that from the cut marks in the tree there was liquid coming out, and instead of letting it go to waste she decided to use it to cook dinner," she said.

Stiefel said that they learned that the longer the liquid was cooked, the sweeter it became.

"Not only would they cook it down into syrup, but they would boil it down further to make maple sugar," she said. "That was easier for them to store and use throughout the year."

She said that the sugaring season generally runs from late February into April, but that is largely dependent on the weather. Sap flow is best when the days are warm and sunny and the nights are cold (below freezing).

"Typically it lasts four to six weeks," Stiefel said. "Once the temperatures are warm and stay warm, the sap actually changes composition. There's less sugar in it, so it tastes less sweet and can actually be kind of bitter. Once you see the buds come out of the trees, that's when you stop collecting sap and the season is over."

Stiefel said that most sugar bushes now employ a tubing system to extract sap from tree to tank, and that each tapped tree can produce between 10 to 20 gallons of sap - equivalent to about a quart of syrup.

"When the sap comes out of the tree, it usually averages about 3 percent sugar," she said. "When you visit our Sugar Shack, you will see that they are boiling the water out of it to get it higher than 60 percent sugar."

Further down the trail, her husband Mike Stiefel - also a Fort Drum forester - introduced people to the old-fashioned way of making maple syrup. While modern methods use evaporators and fancy reverse osmosis systems, Stiefel said he wanted to go "old school" by using two giant cast iron cauldrons over a fire pit.

"This is really the first time we've ever tried this, so I honestly don't know how long it will take or how much syrup we're going to get," he said. "We probably have about 25 gallons of sap in each kettle, so I'm guessing we can get a half gallon of syrup out of each pot by the end of the day - if I don't run out of firewood."

Over the course of the day, Stiefel chopped wood and tossed it into the fire, stirring the vats of once-frozen sap while talking tradecraft with attendees.

"This is how syrup was made back in the 18th and 19th centuries," he said. "They called it kettle syrup and it has a darker, more robust taste to it. It's a pretty simple process."

Stiefel said that there are do-it-yourself methods to making syrup at home, such as with a turkey fryer or directly on the stove top.

"It tends to get your countertops and cupboards a little sticky, but you can make your own syrup at a fairly cheap cost," he said. "Some people have milk jugs on their trees to catch sap. We used to do it on an open pan on cinder blocks."

Stiefel said that some Native American Indians had produced syrup using hollowed-out logs and hot stones to boil the sap.

"The new shiny equipment we have today is fun in its own way, but it's more of an automated system," he said. "So what we're doing out here is about as old school as you can get."

Fort Drum community members can see both modern and traditional ways of making maple syrup by visiting the Sugar Shack on 45th Infantry Division Drive, between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Saturday.

Also, the historic LeRay Mansion will be open for tours from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., with the 10th Mountain Division Band performing from 11 a.m. until noon that day.

To learn more, visit https://www.facebook.com/FortDrumNaturalResources/.