Sugar Camp Days

Apr 11, 2014

Ah, the sweetness of springtime! The almost-budding trees! The slowly warming air! And, warmest of all, the pancakes! There’s nothing like a pancake breakfast to get you through the final frosty days. For people who want to confront this problem head-on, there’s “Sugar Camp Days” at Bendix Woods County Park.

You don’t hear much about Indiana maple syrup, but syrup making began here before European settlement. It’s one of the industries Europeans learned from Native Americans. During the period when the Grand Kankakee Marsh of the Indiana Territories would have rivaled the Everglades as the greatest natural wonder east of the Mississippi, Westerners were learning to make use of the maple trees in the hardwood forests and swamps of the Great Lakes region to add a few dribbles of sweetness to a difficult life.

My wife and I recently got a taste of this tradition at the maple festival. One Saturday morning in mid-March, we took my parents to Bendix Woods. Driving west from South Bend on State Road 2 toward New Carlyle, you come upon an expanse of heavily wooded acres in the midst of endless, flat farmland. The park was once a Studebaker property. The automobile company had a test track there, which still exists, almost hidden among the dense woods. And when the Bendix Company later acquired the land, they also chose to preserve the trees. So there’s that to celebrate, too, in a region that has lost so much of its natural diversity and beauty.

Our morning began with a walk through the woods. Living out in the open, I tend to forget that a forest is already itself a kind of shelter, a built-up place, although much quieter than a town. The paths led to actual buildings, where there were many things to see – pioneer demonstrations of all kinds. My wife and my mom were remarking on some of these. So perhaps other people have higher aspirations, but my dad and I were entirely focused on the pancakes and sausage breakfast, and we pushed ahead to the Glenn Bauer Shelter.

Inside the building we discovered another world, one teeming with children. (Of course, the pancakes!) When you’re childless (or child-free as we like to say), you forget how many children there really are, of various shapes and sizes. I hadn’t realized how productive our young men and women had been over the last several years. Maybe the cold winters help. Children were moving through the food line; they were walking between and under the tables, chattering, laughing. They were eating pancakes and syrup and drinking milk. They would soon have the energy (as we would, too) to explore the sugar bush outside the door.

Our next stop was the Native American display, where two guides, who were boiling a kettle of sap, showed us the ancient traditions of sugar making. Down the road we visited a pioneer camp and also a modern sugar shack. You could learn how to tap trees. A team of draft horses pulled people up and down the road in a large wagon, the sort of conveyance that would have been needed years ago for hauling the barrels of collected sap. A living museum is a work of remembrance.

There is a sweet spot in the sugar calendar, when the sun begins to warm the days, but before the nocturnal frosts end and the trees really begin to bud. That’s when the sweet sap flows up from the starch-rich winter roots of the maples – a gift, if you know how to receive it, and if you’re patient enough and careful enough to boil it all down. The work is difficult and good.