Making Sweet Maple Syrup in Michigan’s Outdoors

battel 1My family has been producing maple syrup for six generations. Some of my earliest memories are watching Great Grandpa Battel boil sap late into the night and helping the rest of my family collect buckets and dump them into great big sap tanks that were above my head at the time. Now I’m 15 years old and I’m proud to be carrying on my family’s tradition, with my own operation called County Line Kids Pure Maple Syrup of 217 maple taps that a friend and I run alongside my family’s business Battel’s Sugar Bush. I want to share with you a glimpse of what it’s like to be a Battel in the spring. We’ll explore the science behind maple syrup production, modern maple syrup tools, and the potential for maple syrup in Pure Michigan. battel 2

Syrup production by maple trees requires a very specific climate that only occurs in a small part of the world. Our beautiful Michigan just happens to be smack-dab in the middle of that region. We enjoy the perfect temperatures  for  a 5- to 7-week period, beginning around late February and lasting as late as early April. As soon as temperatures reach above freezing during the day, but still below 32 degrees F at night, maple trees begin to wake up from dormancy. Like all trees, maples produce sap. Sap is responsible for transporting sugary energy within the tree through xylem and phloem, which are like a tree’s veins and arteries. Warm temperatures in the day pull sap through xylem and up into the tree’s canopy to begin producing leaves for the coming spring. As soon as temperatures cool down at night, sap is pushed through phloem deep into the root system to keep from freezing.

battel 3My family has been taking advantage of this process for six generations. As the tree’s energy source sap is dense in sugar, especially in hard maple trees like the sugar maple.  Spring is the perfect time for sugarmakers like my family to begin collecting maple sap. Spiles are a tool sugarmakers use to collect sap; they’re tapped into the tree within a 2-inch long by 5/16th inch diameter hole. This spile acts a bit like a faucet that allows sap to flow out of the tree. Of course, sugarmakers value the health of our trees as our livelihood depends on them. By following university guidelines on the size and number of spiles we put in our trees, we ensure that we’re only collecting about 10% of the total sap a tree will produce in a season and that there’s plenty left over for the tree to continue growing at a healthy rate.

battel 5Once we have sap flowing, we collect it through buckets, bags, vacuum-pump or gravity-flow tubing. If you tasted the sap you would realize of course, it is not the finished product you pour on your pancakes. It takes on average 40 gallons of the watery sap to make one gallon of finished maple syrup. My family uses a reverse osmosis machine, RO for short, which pushes sap through a semi-porous membrane filter system that separates about half the water from the sap. We then boil the condensed sap on an evaporator pan to allow the remaining water to evaporate. My family’s evaporator pan uses wood fire to heat sap to 219 degrees F, at which point it becomes maple syrup. My grandpa has become expert over the years at checking our syrup for finish by watching how it aprons off a dipper, while we also use a hydrometer to double check the sugar content.

battel 6 Once the sugar shack is filled with steam and the sweet smell of finished maple syrup, it’s drawn off the evaporator pan and moved to the canning room. There, we heat our syrup to 200 degrees F and push it through a filter press. After being filtered, it is poured into our beautiful glass or plastic containers and ready to sell.

It’s no surprise to anyone that Michigan’s vast and beautiful natural resources are closely tied to our economy, but it may surprise you to learn that maple trees hold our biggest untapped secret. Michigan sugarmakers only tap between 5 and 15 percent of the available sugar maple trees. Right now, Michigan makes 110,000 gallons of syrup a year while Vermont makes nearly 2 million gallons. Vermont makes 18 times the syrup. But here’s the thing: Michigan has two times the trees. Michigan produces $5.25 million worth of maple syrup a year. If we grow our maple syrup industry it could be bigger than the cherry industry and almost as big as the dry bean and blueberry industries.

Here’s what you can do about that: Tap your trees! Maple syrup making is relatively inexpensive compared to other industries, and the season is short. All a backyard producer needs are a food-safe, environmentally-safe way to tap and collect from maple trees, evaporate water from maple sap and store finished syrup in food-safe containers. Similar to the Cottage Food Law, maple syrup production is exempt from some of the requirements of Michigan Food Law, so by following a few simple guidelines your product can be sold for profit. We all know that money doesn’t grow on trees, but it does grow in maple trees!

battel 7I hope you now have a better understanding of what goes on inside a maple tree that makes its delicious sweetener possible, what it takes to make maple syrup, and what maple syrup means to our Michigan economy. If you’re interested in finding out more about how to make maple syrup on your own, please visit: under “How to make maple syrup in your own backyard.” Or visit us during our annual open house March 17, 2018, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., at Battel’s Sugar Bush in Cass City, Michigan

You can also visit Addy at her face book page “County Line Kids Syrup.”

Addy Battel, YCC member – Cass City


Running in the Rain

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Opossum tracks in the mud.

Spring time is right around the corner.  Everyone knows the timeless rhyme, “April showers bring May flowers.”  The blossoms begin to bloom, the sun starts to shine, and the animals are out to adventure.  These are the great times to be a nature goer, especially with children! But what about the “showers”?  During the rainy season kids are often trapped in their homes.  We struggle to find something productive, yet exciting to do.  Contrary to what most seem to think, the rain and mud are just another reason to get outside!

Jump in a mud puddle!

Getting children outside, stomping around in the pools of water, allows them to learn about something they are not accustom to doing. With this, you can find worms in the surrounding area. This gives one the opportunity to teach the youth about the change of seasons, along with the circle of life found in nature.

Make castles of mud!

Being able to get hands-on is always the best.  The ability to feel the slimy mud is very important for kids. This makes them ask an adult questions and opens their minds up for imagination and further contemplation. Not only is it a learning curve, but an enjoyable way to spend time outside.

Look for tracks!

Mud is the best way to looks for fresh tracks.  When exploring for tracks, you do not need to go on a long hike, but simply go in your back yard. You can find bird tracks, mouse tunnels, squirrels tracks, or any other foot prints that you cross paths with.

These are just a couple ideas to expand the spring season before the “May flowers” begin to bloom.  The rainy season is not an excuse to stay inside, but an opportunity to adventure, learn and expose children to nature.  The youth is the next generation of outdoors men and women.  As adults, we need to allow kids to get dirty, play, and simply have fun in the rain!

Graham Smith, YCC member – Lyons

Snowmobile Fever

  Jacob 3   As summer draws to a close and fall begins the countdown to snowmobile season begins. On December 1st of every year the snowmobile trails officially open for the first time since their closing on March 31st, granted the weather permits. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t snowmobile prior to this date, it just means you can’t ride on any state regularled trails, but riding down seasonal roads, on your own property, or around state land is no problem. As winter approaches the anticipation builds up each day that passes. Once the snow hits the ground it’s off to the races, and the long anticipated snowmobile season begins.

      Where I live downstate in Owosso we don’t get much for snow, let alone a whole trail system to ride on, so I instead resort to riding around my grandparents cabin In Benzie County near Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore one of the most beautiful places in world, but that’s a whole other story. While most people would assume just stick to the trails, I prefer not to and instead enjoy carving up the feet of deep powder that can often be found in Northern Michigan, this is known as boondocking. Don’t ask me why it’s know as this, it just is, but if I had to take a guess it would probably have to do with the fact that it is often done out in the middle of nowhere otherwise known as the boonies.

      This isn’t to say that I dislike riding on designated trails because I do, and often find it rather enjoyable. Usually on average trips for me range anywheres from as little as 20 miles upwards to 200 plus miles. My dad on the other hand has told me about times he’s rode with his friends well over 300 miles in a single day up in the U.P. You yourself though can ride as little or far you want and maybe even take in some of the beautiful scenery Michigan has to offer along the way

     While many people seem to enjoy mild winters, us snowmobilers hate them because it means less snow, more rain, and warmer temps which equals less riding. Tragically the last couple winters have been really hard on us snowmobilers, especially us riders in the lower peninsula. I mean President’s Day weekend use to be a given for snowmobiling, but this has been the second year in a row we’ve had poor snow conditions. On the bright side this year’s mild winter has allowed me to pursue another hobby; snowboarding!

Jacob Zuckschwerdt, YCC Member – Owosso

Out of Hibernation: My Experience Winter Camping

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My first winter campout

When I was eight, I convinced my dad to go camping with me in the middle of winter. We bundled up against the cold and traveled out into the unforgiving wilderness. Our gear was rudimentary and I slept in two sleeping bags, one inside the other, to keep warm. It was freezing, but exhilarating, and I have been hooked ever since.

This year, I went winter camping for the fourth time in my life. My dad and I hiked out a mile and half in the Pigeon River State Forest and found the perfect campsite along a lake that had been dammed up. We chose a weekend in January where it had not snowed during the last week, so while the lake was frozen over, and there was little to no snow on the ground.

When we found our campsite the first order of business was to set up our tent and start a fire. We had started hiking around a little later in the day, so we were in a race against the sun to get our stuff unpacked and stored away. Putting together the tent proved more difficult than first thought due to the fact that we tried to attach the walls to the poles backwards. Aside from the slight confusion in the tent assembly, we were able to roll out our sleeping pads and hang our packs with no problem and we only misplaced three pairs of gloves in the process.

Once our camp was straightened out we were able to take time to make dinner, freeze dried Pad Thai. The food was amazing, but we had a hard time keeping the gas stove lit against the wind. We managed to cover it with a log to protect it and keep it alight long enough to boil the water to hydrate our meal.

We huddled around the campfire drinking coffee for warmth, and then after the sun set we went out and were able to look at the stars, which seem to be significantly brighter during the winter. The brilliant light of the stars shone vividly against the dark backdrop of a clear winter night. The moon outshone the stars and cast such a light that headlamps were not needed as we admired the cosmos from the glassy iced lake.

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Dad hiking around the lake

Then, with cold toes, we tucked into our zero degree sleeping bags (an amazing improvement to our doubling up method of before), and dozed off to the creaking ice on the lake.

In the morning we woke up and started to pack up camp. Our stove ran out of gas due to the cold and the large amount used the night before, and so we had to improvise and heat our water directly over the campfire. This was not the most efficient way, but it worked enough to heat our healthy chili Mac with beef and beans for breakfast.

After we had packed up camp, we wandered aimlessly around the smoothly iced lake one more time, and then hiked back up to our car. Our adventure was short, but next time I want to go out for more than one night and in temperatures that are even colder. Winter camping is fun and memorable, and with just a little planning, an easily accessible way to fight off the winter blues.

Lane Whitcomb, YCC member – Petoskey

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Waking to the morning sunshine!

The Snake River Orchard

The Snake River Orchard isn’t actually a well known orchard from the eyes of anyone else besides our “band of family and friends” who hunt frequently.  Outside this group, the Snake River Orchard is just a simple orchard on the banks of the Snake River. Without this orchard, our new hunting property wouldn’t have as much variety as it currently does. The beaver, bear, deer, ducks, and other various creatures sure add an interesting form of surprise to this property.

My dad and I decided to take a walk around the property because we had been catching a ton of Snowshoe hares on the game cameras during deer season. We were hoping we might see one, even though they have spectacular camouflage. We brought our dog curly, hoping he could help us spot them even though he isn’t trained to hunt hare.

The day was grey but it was warm out and there was no wind to be heard of. My dad brought his new semi automatic .22 and I brought my 20 gauge. We decided it would be better to be able to cover both close and far shots. We started our walk by my newly built blind I used for deer season. The spot is perfect because there are probably 15 apple trees in view of the blind. The deer as well as the partridge (ruffed grouse) love the apple trees. We ended up seeing three partridge burst out from the apple trees because curly had gotten ahead of us and spooked them up. The partridge were all way above average size so it was cool to see them because that means they are probably going to be back there next year for bird season. Curly was having a blast running around looking for the partridge even though they had already dismissed his significance as a threat and all just went into the trees. We keep going along, looking for more hare as curly did zig-zags across the trail we were walking. The day progressed as an unsuccessful hunt but an enjoyable walk with Curly and my dad.

The Snake River was still open where the beavers had their main beaver dam. It was cool to see where the muskrat and beaver had been moving in and out of the water and across the ice to their lodges. While we were down there, we broke the dam open again to help relieve the flooding of the four wheeler trails during the spring. We also looked for good places to put minnow traps for ice fishing during the year because during the summer we had already found schools of minnows roaming around the river and especially in a small opening where the beaver dam still had water flowing.

There were many very heavily traveled deer trails that we came across while walking through the swamp. It was a good opportunity to spend time planning out spots to put stands for next year. We also planned out places to make new trails for getting through the dense swamp. We had planned on looking for good places to put trails to get through the swamp earlier in the summer, but we ended up spending almost all of our time on rebuilding the camp that is on the property. Now that we got that mostly rebuilt and all buttoned up, making trails and other places to hunt will be a lot easier.

A bonus of the days hunt was that our property buts up against two other properties our friends own. This is nice because with their permission we have a huge area to explore. There are many trails that connect the properties so it’s fun to use them but also a pain to maintain. I have learned though, that maintenance isn’t so bad when we group up and have work days. It makes it easier and more entertaining to work on the trails.

The whole makeup of the many acres we have to work with makes things like hare hunting and snowshoeing more enjoyable because there are more things to do outside than just looking at it. The outdoors are interactive and that’s why I enjoy the outdoors so much. As well as it gives me an excuse to spend some time with my dog and my dad and get away from the busy life.

Jonathan Baker, YCC member, Chassell


Deer Camp, A Special Tradition

Spieles tentNovember 15 is a day that Michigan hunters look forward to all year.  I am always excited for that time of year because our family goes to deer camp.  I love going to deer camp because there is not on a specific schedule and you never know what kind of adventure the next day will bring.

Our whole family, including my Mom, Dad, younger brother Conrad and myself, heads to deer camp.  This is a tradition we have been doing since 2006 and every year is a great time .  Our deer camp is extremely unique because we stay in a large cabin tent that is heated by an old cast iron wood stove. We put four cots around the back of the tent and a small table in the middle.  There is an antique cast iron two burner stove that we use for most of our cooking on the right as you walk in the door.  The wood stove is in the left corner by the door and we have a small wood stack behind it so that we have plenty of wood for the day and night.

We set up camp in Tahquamenon Falls State Park which is one of the most beautiful places in the state.  Whitetail buck hunting is the purpose, but for us the main reason we go is to have fun and exciting adventures as a family.  We go on hikes along small creeks and ridges and find all sorts of amazing things.  Sometimes though when the weather is really bad we just hunker down in the tent and play cards and board games until the weather passes.  

Tent camping also provides its adventures.  One day we decided to go steelhead fishing.  After a couple hours when we were just finishing, the rain started to come down.  It rained for several hours at 35 degrees, and when we reached our campsite we discovered it was completely flooded.  All of our belongings were floating inside the tent on six inches of water.  We dug trenches to divert the water away from the tent, hung everything up to dry, stoked the fire and then played monopoly in our boots. It eventually stopped raining and the water soaked into the ground, While it may have been inconvenient for a while it is still one of many deer camp memories that I will never forget.

One of the very special traditions is to have Thanksgiving dinner in the tent every year.  The turkey is cooked on the charcoal grill and along with all of the other food we have a great meal at our table in the middle of the tent.  Deer camp is always exciting because each year is different and I never know what to expect.

Ben Spieles – YCC member, Newberry

Sparking Memories with Kerosene

Fayette 2Fayette Historic State Park in Garden, Upper Michigan offers a snowshoe; cross country ski; and hiking kerosene-lit trail each winter. This year, I was able to attend. Upon arrival, we passed an extensive line of cars. Luckily, we were able to get a relatively close parking spot to the beginning of the trail. Since the previous two days had been pretty warm, we decided the trail wasn’t appropriately groomed to cross country ski, especially for first-timer like me. We walked over to the beginning of the trail, illuminated by the flickering lanterns. As we proceeded to walk down the trail, we could see slivers of the full moon glistening through the trees, reflecting blue on the snow. The trail was full of people snowshoeing, skiing, and just enjoying the time with everyone around them. As we continued our way down the 1.5-mile path, it winded along the lakeshore, opening up to overlooks to see the lake. The stone outlooks were perfectly placed to where you could look all the way across the bay to the Stonington Peninsula. The moon reflecting on the ice was picture perfect — glowy, glistening, and peaceful. We captured the moments in pictures and took it all in. We finished the next half mile and wrapped up our hike. This event is a great way to bring hundreds of people together to enjoy different activities all in one place.

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Audrey Naeyaert – YCC member, Rapid River