March 24, 2013
Growing up in Winnipeg, I have a clear memory of my mother sharing a story of her childhood visit to a maple farm. She recalled throwing freshly boiled syrup in the snow, salivating at the memory of the resulting delicious taffy. How is it that her sweet tooth-afflicted daughter has never enjoyed that experience firsthand?
This is the coldest winter in some time, but Jody and I were still seeking some fresh air on a recent weekend. Remembering my mom’s story, I said I wanted to check out some maple syrup farms, and Jody was her usual good sport self. We explored a few options, and decided to combine our quest with our love of a good road trip, and headed down to White Meadows Farms in St. Catharines.
We meandered our way there in mid-afternoon on a Saturday, making fewer stops than usual for me to hop out in the cold with my camera (or phone, these days). There was a biting wind, but the huge stands of trees at the farm offered a surprising amount of protection. It turned out to be a lovely, crisp winter day with soft lighting for my photos. I will happily trade a bright blue sky for this quality of light!
Employees of the farm are all dressed in traditional pioneer clothing, which was kitschy but cute. Jody and I had a secondary reason for picking this activity and wanting to experience everything on offer, hoping to bring our neighbours’ children back with us another time if we had fun.
After paying a reasonable fee of $9.50 per person, we took a covered hay wagon ride out to the sugar bush, where we could follow a trail around various stations at our own pace. It’s not often you get to relive your school field trip days as an adult! I knew the kids would love this.
Throughout the woods, placards listed the types of trees around us, and showed what they would look like in another season – or in this case, century.
At the first “station” we arrived at, we met a young man dressed in costume, who proceeded to eagerly pantomime for us how the sweet maple sap was first discovered (by an axe stuck in a tree). His sense of humour and enthusiasm were contagious, and our small group laughed appreciatively.
He explained how the pioneers added the raw maple sap to the meal they were cooking, and accidentally discovered the thickening properties. From there they began to develop a process of syrup production by hollowing out logs, filling them with sap, and heating it up by placing hot fire stones directly into the trough. They had to filter the resulting mess of ash and other impurities by pouring the syrup over animal skins, which would trap much of the debris within the hair. Can’t say the thought of eating that would hold much appeal for me!
Stations number two and three showed us the history of tree tapping, with the different styles of collection buckets over the years, and the process for boiling down the sap in a series of cauldrons.
We gamely participated in learning how to use an old-fashioned 2-person saw, which was surprisingly efficient and amusing to coordinate. For an extra 50 cents, they brand the little piece of wood you slice off the sample log.
There were other set-ups as well, where someone demonstrated the types of spiles used to tap trees, how many taps could be put into trees of which size, and how some of the technology evolved over time in the processing of sap to syrup.
The best station was the last, where we came upon a big fire pit with seating for people to warm themselves, and a single large cauldron of syrup bubbling away over the flames. The reduction had a purpose: two teenaged boys manned a neighbouring counter, where a long trough of snow waited for the hot syrup to make taffy. For $1, I’d finally get to taste this Canadian treat!
I ate mine too fast for Jody to get a picture of it.
We finished out the trip by walking back through the forest, our path running alongside the plastic lines which led from the sugar maple trees to the modern evaporator. It took years of experimentation with everything from the type of plastic, to the thickness of the line, to the choice of colour, for them to determine the current process. They decided on blue because it’s easily visible in all seasons, and this size of line distributes the sun’s warmth quickly to allow the sap to run.
Before returning to our car, we stopped into the sugar shack to buy syrup, maple butter, and White Meadows’ own maple popcorn, which was to die for!
Jody and I decided that as much as we knew the children in our lives would love this place, it would probably be best to choose another farm a little closer to home. The very next weekend, again on a Saturday, we headed up to Bruce’s Mill Conservation Area in Stouffville.
The entrance fee here was about the same, at $10 for adults. The first stop was at a face painting station (another $5-$10 depending on design), followed by some crepe-style pancakes in the large cafeteria. Both ideas were a big hit with the kids!
Just outside the pancake house was a ring of ponies, giving slow careful rides for $5 per child. The little boy with us had never ridden one before, and eagerly hopped on a pony named Charlie. He seemed thrilled with the experience, but was equally fascinated by the cleanup process every time the ride stopped for a poop scoop.
Bruce’s Mill also has a walking trail through the forest, but the option for a crowded guided tour didn’t appeal to us. We headed off on our own, and aside from one station giving out free maple syrup samples in little cups, we were a little disappointed to find there wasn’t much else to see.
Returning to the central area, we saw there was an option for a horse-drawn cart ride, and coughed up another $1 per person to hop on. Two gorgeous Belgian horses worked hard to carry us around a short, muddy track. The view wasn’t much, but the horses were amazing. If you look closely, you’ll see the one on the right has a hilarious blonde moustache!
When the ride was over, we walked over to the petting zoo pen, set up across from the pony rides. They had a calf, a couple of sheep, a few goats, and rabbits in another smaller enclosure. One goat was the star of the show, jumping in the air, butting heads with other goats and sheep, and generally acting crazy. The human kids loved it.
Once again, the last stop of the day was at the sugar shack, where we picked up some treats for the kids and some more syrup for a friend.
I liked that there were so many animal-related activities at Bruce’s Mill for children, and that it was a dog-friendly environment for leashed pets (White Meadows was not). However, I really enjoyed our experience at White Meadows too, and older kids would probably get a little more out of the educational aspect of their tour. The only thing we didn’t participate in was the use of the skating rink or toboggan hills at White Meadows, which will be something else to keep in mind for next season!