Monday, February 18, 2013

First week and tapping trees

** Summer programs announced. Visit our Programs page for details. 
We also have kids long sleeve t-shirts for sale ($20, proceeds support scholarship).
Email me to buy one.

Last week was our first week of programs for the spring. We had a wonderful time exploring the land, meeting new friends, and reconnecting with old ones. We started our Field School program as we always do, by building a fire. This time around had such a different, magical feel to it. Everyone immediately broke off into groups to get all the materials we needed - little twigs, big sticks, birch bark slivers, material for a tinder bundle. It was great to see so much cooperation. Visit the photo gallery to see more photos from this.

With our Wednesday and Thursday Field School program split into smaller groups and went for wanders to find a tree that caught our eye and that we wanted to tap. We looked for large healthy trees that were at least a foot in diameter. We also wanted to tap the south side of the tree, which has the most sun exposure and might produce the most sap flow.

My one rule with tapping trees is anything but sugar maple. With that in mind, we tapped:
  • bitternut hickory
  • white ash
  • white birch
  • yellow birch
  • striped maple
  • big-toothed aspen
So for our programs this year, that brings our total up to 17 different species! A couple weeks ago we tapped 13 species with the Earth Skills Seminar. For the other species see my posting on the Wild Burlington blog.

After tapping trees, we went to a white pine that had been cut down over the summer to get a great look at the difference between heartwood (darker color above, dead part of tree where waste products are stored) and the sapwood (lighter part oozing sap, living part of xylem). 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Quinzee construction & Crows

** Our summer camp schedule is now on our website. Visit the Summer Programs page for details and registration forms.

This week for the Earth Skills Seminar we constructed a quinzhee. The snow was far less than ideal for it. A quinzee is like a big down jacket that you can crawl inside and sleep in. Since the snow is so dense from the warm weather (about 10" of snow fell in the storm and by Monday afternoon it had compacted to about 3"), the fluffy loft that you want for insulation had all but disappeared. With our group and a bunch of snow shovels, it didn't take long to pile the heavy snow into an oval about 5'x8' and maybe 5' tall.

When building a quinzhee, it should be left to "sinter" for a couple of hours. Sintering's a natural process where snow crystals freeze to one another as water vapor stabilizes within the snowpack (all those points on a snowflake turn out to be a very unstable configuration). After it sinters for a while, you can hollow out the quinzhee. I poke sticks about 10" long into the walls of the quinzhee so when I hollow it out I know how far to go and don't make any thin sections. I also elevate the floor a bit and make the entrance lower so that cold air drains out. A soft bed of hemlock or pine bows makes a great comfy place to sleep.

We were planning on going into Centennial Woods and making a debris hut style snow shelter while we waited for the quinzhee to sinter, but then the crows started flying overhead and we decided to head out on a crow safari. We tracked the crows all around and finally pinned down what may have been somewhere between 6000 and 8000 crows making a ruckus at the golf course (near intersection of S Prospect and Ledge). I posted a video and some details on the crow roost in Burlington here and a video here.

As we were about to leave someone pointed out a crow that had been perched by itself at the top of an oak. It had been sitting there the whole time we were watching as the thousands of other crows circled frenetically around them. Its calm demeanor was striking and almost ominous with the tumultuous sky in the background.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Alternative Sugaring

Embarassingly out of focus shot of the ESS group
 carving their own sumac/elderberry spiles 
Today kicked off the beginning of the Earth Skills Seminar  A small group of us gathered at my house to celebrate the beginning of sap flow by making spiles. We'll be checking them over the coming weeks to see which trees start flowing sooner than others (we'll also check which ones taste better than others).

Spiles: (L to R) elderberry, sumac, late 1800s model, 1950s model
We tapped 13 different species:
  • Norway maple (Acer platanoides)
  • Boxelder (Acer negundo)
  • Silver maple (Acer saccharinum)
  • Red maple (Acer rubrum)
  • White ash (Fraxinus americana)
  • Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis)
  • Apple (Malus domesticus)
  • Black cherry (Prunus serotina)
  • Big-toothed aspen (Populus grandidentata)
  • Black locust** (Robinia pseudo-acacia)
  • Smoke tree** (Cotinus sp.)
  • Black walnut (nigra)
  • Paper birch (Betula papyrifera) Zac thinks it's a gray birch, but we'll see.  
We're planning on tapping European larch (Larix decidua), red oak (Quercus rubra), staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina)**, and a buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica)** as well.

** These species are potentially toxic and shouldn't be ingested. I'd suggest doing background research before attempting to drink sap from species other than maples and birches, particularly since not all people are created equal and some, for example, react to sumac while others don't.

For more on the process and our experiment, visit the Wild Burlington Blog.