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OCC maple syrup demo draws crowd

Oakton student Jacob Schmidt and Oakton naturalist and groundskeeper Ken Schaefer watch sap boil on Thursday. The three-year tradition is part of the ecology club's effort to raise awareness about nature on campus. (Jennifer Delgado/Tribune)

Oakton student Jacob Schmidt and Oakton naturalist and groundskeeper Ken Schaefer watch sap boil on Thursday. The three-year tradition is part of the ecology club's effort to raise awareness about nature on campus. (Jennifer Delgado/Tribune)

Oakton Community College students and staff unacquainted with the origins of maple syrup received a little history lesson last week as ecology club members demonstrated how the pancake topping is formed.

Dozens of passersby stopped with inquisitive expressions and questions on their way to class as members manned a flaming grill stocked with three large pots and ladles outside the Des Plaines campus’ main building. They boiled the sap and passed out spoons of the sweet substance, which begins as a clear liquid and turns a shade of amber when it’s ready.

(PHOTOS: Making maple syrup.)

Student Peter Fox, of Park Ridge, could smell the burning logs from the school’s parking lot. Though he has made maple syrup before, he stayed for nearly a half-hour to watch the demonstration.

“I just followed my nose,” said the 19-year-old, who also volunteers with River Trails Nature Center in Northbrook. “I like how this is set up.”

The event is a three-year tradition sponsored by the school’s ecology club that teaches students about the edible plants on campus. Besides maple trees, wild onions grow on the grounds, black cherry trees stand adjacent to the main building and gooseberries and elderberries blossom nearby.

About 200 maple trees cover the grounds, though only six were tapped with spigots over a two-day period earlier this month to collect sap for the demo, said Ken Schaefer, the college’s naturalist and groundskeeper. Club members drilled holes into the trees to collect sap, which dripped into two-gallon bags that were placed in refrigerators.

This year’s maple syrup tapping season was shorter than most due to the recent warm weather,  but still provided enough sap to make syrup to pass out to the students.

About 40 gallons of sap make a gallon of maple syrup, Schaefer said. Last year, the club collected nearly 90 gallons, but this year, the trees yielded only 30 gallons over two days, he added.

“It’s so great to watch the reactions and see (students) understand you can tap sap here,” Schaefer said.

Ecology club president and student Jacob Schmidt, 20, was pleased with the turn-out. He said his goal is to raise interest in the club and get more people in tune with nature.

“You get people coming out and asking all kinds of questions,” said the Glenview resident. “I just recruited someone. That was cool.”

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