GROTON -- One, two, ready, go! Wood started supporting, sugar tubes began transporting, roots commenced drinking and leaves took to shaking. A giant, 40-person maple tree was growing the side yard.
The activity, part of "Maple Sugaring: NRWA Family Workshop" is all part of the outreach the environmental advocates do, said Lauri Johnson, development manager at the Nashua River Watershed Association in Groton. Kids who experience nature are more likely to make better decisions about the environment down the road.
Plus, it's fun.
Maple syrup, a well-known New England product, is made in the spring by gathering sap from maple trees and boiling it down until only the sticky syrup remains. The first step in sugaring is to find the right trees.
Each participant got a maple twig. Then they donned short, red, pointed hats, representing the bud at the end of the stick. And what is inside a bud? Mary Marro wanted to know. A leaf. And, lo and behold, a picture of a maple leaf was inside each hat.
The twigs stick out from the main branches, said Marro, NRWA's environmental education director. The children held their hands out at the sides at Marro's request, so they would remember what to look for once they got outside.
It was official. Each person was now a twigger, ready to identify the maples.
Children absorb knowledge and skills well by learning, doing and then teaching, Johnson said. The types of activities offered by the NRWA give the kids a chance for some hands-on experience. They become citizen scientists. In addition to activities at the center, the group runs school-based programs.
The weather on March 2 was perfect for a woods walk, not too cold and no precipitation. Having learned about the program through his in-laws, Jeff Ardinger of Leominster brought his daughter Angie, 4. "It's great to get the kids out," he said.
One of the lessons to be learned in the outdoors is being flexible. It takes cold nights and warm days to get the sap flowing. The perfect walking weather turned out to be less than perfect for sap gathering.
The trained twiggers had no problem finding a maple tree. Marro got her brace and bit, a large hand drill, ready and drilled into the bark. As soon as white started to show on the bit, they would be into the wood. Sap would soon drip.
Since the day was about doing, not watching, the kids took a turn with the drill. As soon as the white appeared, Marro determined the hole was deep enough to gather sap. No luck; it was dry.
"It was so sunny this morning, I was sure it was going to be running. Usually it would start dripping right away," she said.
Undeterred, the twiggers quickly identified another maple and gave it a try. "A dud," one child said when it, too, came up dry. Another group, led by George Moore, struck out, too. Eventually, a tree on the front side of the building gave up some of the sweet stuff. Everyone was able to get a little in their hands to give it a try.
There was not much to taste coming directly from the tree, so kids had another chance to taste sap gathered earlier. "That doesn't look like anything. It looks like water," Marro said of the jugs of sap. It tastes just a little bit sweet.
Back at the building, a pan of syrup was warming on a Coleman stove. After all, no sugaring expedition is complete without a taste of the final product.
Marro and Moore ladled the sticky stuff onto waffles shared by families. Then, it was inside the building to bottle a little syrup to take home after reading a book.
To view upcoming programs, visit www.nashuariverwatershed.org.