In some ways actually, in many ways the great outdoors hasn't been so great this spring. As I put this column together, Grand Rapids, Minn., is getting eight-inches of snow and Chisum is forecast to get about 12-inches. Some spring, huh?
While hobnobbing with some Forest Service personnel this week, I'm told that our warm weather that arrived weeks ahead of time has wreaked havoc with Iowa's maple syrup production. Taps ran dry across the state, leaving maple syrup enthusiasts in a lurch. Ralph Bjorgaad explained it this way: "For taps to run, the temperature needs to drop below freezing overnight and warm enough to thaw sap during the day. This year has seen very few days that meet this requirement. It's important for the temperature to freeze because it causes all the sap to flow down into the roots. Sap that freezes in the trunk or limbs expands and could kill the tree. When the temperature goes above freezing, the sap flows back up the tree to provide nourishment for creating buds."
Usually there can be two to three weeks of sap collection. Sap production isn't the only thing that's down; the sugar content of the sap was also low this year. Forestry personnel tell me that on average a sap collector gets about a 2.8 percent sugar count in his syrup, but this year, the sugar content was about 2.3 percent. That means it took more sap to make syrup. This year, the ratio of sap to syrup was 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. In a good year, about 29 gallons of sap will make one gallon of syrup. Mother Nature threw a curve ball.
This year, a lot (make that most) of the sap collectors won't be able to make enough maple syrup to sell. A lot of sap collectors got absolutely nothing. Box elder is another species of maple and for some reason, those trees' sap ran better than any of the other types of maple. Bjorgaard said the box elder syrup tastes different than syrup from sugar maple. It has a buttery quality "like you put butter on your pancakes."
At this point, the tapping season is over here in Iowa. Even if the weather turned and temperatures began to freeze overnight and thaw during the day, syrup made from sap at this time of year doesn't taste as good. It tastes like gasoline. Sap taken after the trees begin to flower or the buds get too large is bitter with a bad aftertaste. When the buds on the trees are the size of squirrel's ears, that's when the sap starts to not taste so good. The Iowa spring ceremony in the maple sugar woods is over. The taps are out. Everything cleaned, stored and put away. It'll probably be the first time ever that Iowa has seen such poor sap production. And I for one, like lots and lots of maple syrup on my pancakes.
Last Friday and Saturday, for only the second time in my life, I had the experience of being in the area around Kearney, Neb. over in the Platte River country to witness the enormous annual spring migration of sand hill cranes. More than 500,000 sand hill cranes ranging in groups of one to 20,000 birds. Wow, gaining body fat and resting, the huge birds blanket the area. There is no place on earth like the Platte and Rainwater Basin of Nebraska wetlands. It is an awesome concentration of migratory waterfowl that once you see it, you'll never forget it. Even saw several whooping cranes fewer than 150 are left in the wild.
The river itself is a sight. Described by ranchers as too thing to plow and too thick to drink for thousands of years, the Platte, which starts in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and ends by joining the Missouri River on Nebraska's eastern border, was a treeless, braided river one to three miles wide and 18-inches deep. Gene Gray probably won't agree with me, but I think you can stand at the junction where the Oregon and Mormon Trails cross and see the entire state of Nebraska. Actually, I was on my way to our annual Prairie Dog shoot up in Big Arm, Mont. More about that next week. Don't bother looking for it on the map. You won't find it. It's just a wide spot in the road south of Ashland, which is north of Medicine Wheel, which is south of Miles City, Mont. It's right on the border between the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation and Custer National Forest, which is close to Lame Deer. Anyway, that's where I was last week.
And now, have a good weekend.