As winter melts into spring, the sugar bush comes alive at Bear Paw Scout Camp with a sweet Scouting program that offers hands-on experience in the process of making maple syrup from bucket to bottle.
Bear Paw Scout Camp opened in 1946 on 320 acres in the heart of the scenic Nicolet National Forest in Oconto County.
It is owned and operated by the Boy Scouts of America Bay-Lakes Council, one of the largest Boy Scout Councils in the Midwest, providing programs and services to over 27,000 boys in 35 counties throughout Northeast Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
Hundreds of mature maple trees are part of the camp's unique character, and that led to the creation of a popular early spring program.
"We began tinkering with maple syrup about 10 years ago, cooking the sap in one pot over a propane stove," said Neil Walker, a retired schoolteacher and track coach who has worked at the camp for nearly 35 years as a scout leader and member of the staff. "We started by producing a few pints of syrup, and now the program has grown to a full-scale educational experience."
The current maple syrup program is now in its third year, according to Walker. "Its purpose is to teach the history and methods of maple syrup production and provide another scouting activity."
The program's success led the Wisconsin Maple Syrup Producers Association to choose the camp at the site for its annual first-tapping event March 15, which marks the beginning of the spring maple syrup season.
Maple syrup education is part of the Boy Scouts STEM program, which stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
"The maple syrup program fits in well with this educational focus," Walker said. "The boys are learning a ton of stuff without realizing they're learning.
"Our maple syrup program is held during the last two weekends in March and the first weekend in April because that's when Mother Nature delivers the sap."
The boys begin by learning how Native Americans and early settlers made syrup. "Next they learn about the modern equipment, tapping techniques, sap collection, tree identification, firewood preparation, evaporating, filtering and bottling, and of course, tasting," Walker said.
Then the boys put what they've learned into action.
"They collect bucks of sap from some of the 400 trees and check out the tubing system that collects sap from another 400 trees," he said. "They see the entire process that it takes to turn the sap into maple syrup. They also make their own hydrometers so they can measure the density of the sap and see when it becomes syrup."
Participants also make hydrometers and learn about sugar content in the liquid. Everyone practices tapping with a brace and bit and setting a spile.
Before he leaves, each boy receives his own bottle of syrup with a custom label imprinted with his name and the date he participated. The label also says the syrup was made from sap collected by him.
"We also have a cooking demonstration and give each boy a recipe book so they learn maple syrup is for more than just putting it on pancakes, waffles and French toast," Walker said.
Much of the camp's syrup processing equipment was built from scratch or from donated or recycled materials.
"We started by going to the bakeries and getting buckets to hang on the trees, and then we began buying the taps," Walker said. "We also had people donate bits, braces and other small tools."
Because of the program's popularity, the camp has received funding that enabled the purchase of a custom-made stainless steel evaporator that was fabricated in Green Bay.
According to Walker, much of the sugar shack was constructed using recycled materials. "We've taken down several buildings here, and we used the 2-by-6s from a couple of them. The trusses were from another contractor's project that had a last-minute design change. The windows were recycled as a result of energy upgrades to other buildings."
The Boy Scout programs are open to ages 11-18. The camp typically hosts 175-250 kids each week during the summer. During the first tapping event, however, the camp was open to the public, so many other youngsters also had the opportunity to learn about making maple syrup and participate in many camp activities.
Typically, approximately 160 boys and leaders come for a day to learn about the history and the entire process of making maple syrup. The boys who participate are charged a fee that includes a pancake breakfast, so the program is currently self-sustaining.
In 2013, 7,000 gallons of sap collected at the camp were turned into 170 gallons of maple syrup. Excess syrup currently is sold in the camp's trading post. "We hope to become licensed for off-site sales by the spring of 2015," Walker said.
More information about Bear Paw Scout Camp and the Bay-Lakes Council is available online at www.baylakesbsa.org.