As a follower of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore on Facebook, I saw mention of Maple Sugar Time event on their timeline, along with a series of maple sugar-related questions leading up to it to generate interest. I persuaded J. to go on Sunday, March 8. Often such events are geared to children and families, but I enjoy them and usually learn a little something — for example, I didn’t know this is the only National Park System location that makes maple syrup. (I didn’t know any National Park System location makes maple syrup.)
I love maple syrup and maple sugar candy, which goes back to the early days of my existence — perhaps second grade. One of my few strong memories from that time is of a visit to a western New York farm that produced maple sugar. I don’t know how the idea for this particular field trip came about — perhaps the family had a child in my class or school — but at the time I didn’t get out much, so I was eager for the change-up to the routine and the adventure.
I seem to recall a magical, misty, dark day — the kind that seems to be twilight from sunrise to sunset. The taps in the trees, the steam rising in clouds from the vats, and at the end getting a teeny bag of maple sugar candy to take home. The strong, sweet taste of that candy hooked me for life.
The farm had draft horses, and we may have gone for a wagon ride. I’m not sure about that, or about my memory of the horses steaming in the chilly air, but that at that moment my lifelong love for horses began.
All of this was going through my mind on the way to Indiana Dunes. My directions were bad, so we ended up at Indiana Dunes State Park, where we were surprised to see the stream and beach transformed. There was little water in what was left of the stream, and we couldn’t see the lake or the Chicago skyline over the piles of snow-topped sand along the edge of the beach, almost like a breakwater. Signs warned visitors not to walk on the shelf ice, although some people ventured onto the stream’s ice to climb the piles. The sand was firmer than it is the rest of the year, making it much easier than usual to cross the beach.
At last we found our way to the Chellberg Farm, where Maple Sugar Time was being held. Friendly souls invited us into a tent for a 3 p.m. breakfast of pancakes, sausage, coffee, and, of course, maple syrup, all for $6. As if that weren’t enough of a bargain, they decided to close shop as we were eating, so they gave us leftover sausages.
Our next stop was the gift ship, where you can bet I bought maple syrup, maple sugar candy, and maple cream, all from Harris Sugar Bush in Indiana. It’s very bad for me, I know, but I get a taste of maple sugar when I can, which is rare. It brings back those memories.
As we walked from station to station, we picked up interesting facts and details about the maple sugaring process and industry — for example, Vermont produces 40 percent of our nation’s maple syrup, while New York is next with 18 percent. Pennsylvania (4 percent) is further down the list, but Illinois and Indiana don’t make the cut. A volunteer who was cooking sap in a pot over an open fire showed us that you can tell when the it’s done by dipping a metal ring into it — like soap in a bubble ring, the cooked syrup forms a film across the ring.
I heard a woman talking about cooking sap in her house, but the volunteer recommended cooking outdoors only although I didn’t hear why. Farther along, I saw why, and remembered my second-grade adventure. Steam rose thickly from vats, thickly enough to peel wallpaper. A steamed-over glass bottle was suspended over the vats so it would be warm enough to pour hot syrup into without cracking. The volunteer at this station also pointed out that the syrup is strained, but Indians used it unfiltered, which kept the nutrients intact.
On the way to the farmhouse we ran across a man who said we’d be rewarded there with a cookie — even if we didn’t have a child. (In keeping with the theme, they proved to be Dare maple creams.) First, though, there was a taste test between maple syrup and Mrs. Butterworth syrup. I declined, J. chose correctly, and a few of the other people clearly have faulty taste buds because they were wrong. The volunteer noted that real maple syrup is thinner than the fake stuff.
We detoured again to the state park and walked around the southwest end of the building, where the sky was starting to get pink behind the smokestacks. After looking at a map the other day, I realized what a narrow strip of heaven Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is — not unlike Letchworth State Park in New York and Starved Rock State Park in Illinois, both of which run along rivers.
In Chesterton, Octave Grill was closed, so we tried out Popolano’s, where we ended a great day on a delicious note — minus maple syrup.