Shaver’s Creek Maple Harvest Festival a sweet learning experience

Volunteer Joanne Hughes, right, holds an eastern screech owl for attendees to see during the Maple Harvest Festival on Sunday at Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center.
Volunteer Joanne Hughes, right, holds an eastern screech owl for attendees to see during the Maple Harvest Festival on Sunday at Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center. knetzer@centredaily.com

More than 2,000 people made the short commute over the river and through the woods to the Shaver’s Creek annual Maple Harvest Festival.

The festival, which took place Saturday and Sunday, has been held on the grounds of Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center for decades. Shaver’s Creek is Penn State’s nature center. Its objective is to help people and communities maintain harmony with the natural systems that support life.

Nestled in the heart of the woods in Petersburg was a diverse and culturally rich gathering Sunday morning, bringing both the old and new methods of maple syrup extraction to understanding for all ages.

Attendees were entertained with live music, a wildlife exhibit and fresh local food, complemented by savory, freshly tapped maple syrup.

The day kicked off at 10:30 a.m. with a performance from the Golden Eagles, featuring Jason Beale, the program director of live animal care for Shaver’s Creek.

Underneath the large outdoor pavilion was where you could find most of the patrons patiently waiting in line, with an occasional snowflake or two, for hot cakes, sausage, warm maple syrup and an assortment of breakfast beverages.

“Most people look forward to eating the pancakes, we have a great recipe and what they get to enjoy on top of those pancakes is the true, pure maple syrup. It is truly the sap just boiled down and then served,” said Mark McLaughlin, director of the Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center.

All of the ingredients used to prepare the food came from local vendors, including Meyer Dairy and Gemeli Bakers.

Each table doted a sign emphasizing an important Shaver’s Creek initiative — a “zero waste” approach. Guests were encouraged to compost plates, napkins, utensils and food scraps. All of the cutlery provided was bio-degradable.

“This is a festival that was created for the community to come enjoy and learn about the maple harvest process, from tree ID to table. We have a class offered through the recreation parks and tourism management major and our students are learning about how to teach about the process,” McLaughlin said.

“People need to be more connected to nature,” said Rakeem Druitt, a Penn State senior studying criminology. Druitt is one of several students participating in the course McLaughlin discussed, which teaches students the fundamentals of maple syrup extraction.

“I came from Brooklyn. This class showed me that authentic maple syrup doesn’t come from the supermarkets. It’s natural and comes from trees,” Druitt said.

At the Sugar Shack, one of five tour stops explaining the maple extraction process, guests had the chance to test Druitt’s observation.

Four syrups were put to a taste test, and attendees were asked to choose which were authentic maple syrup and which came from commercial syrup companies. The mass-produced syrups, generally, did not contain any maple syrup and were chock-full of chemicals, including artificial flavoring.

Most were easily able to determine which syrups came from the tree and which came from the store given consistency, color and flavor.

“We have sugar maple trees here in Centre County, which are native to the entire northeast. They seem to be the sweetest of all the trees containing syrup. People have learned that by tapping the sugar maple that it has the highest sugar content, so when you boil it down, just right, you get the gold magic that is maple syrup,” McLaughlin said.

“As we got more industrially developed we got farther and farther from nature. We need to get back to a more natural approach, in terms of our food and health,” Druitt said.

“It’s a fun day for me and a great day to give back. Shaver’s Creek certainly inspired my love for nature and being able to teach children about natural food processes,” he said.

Other students say the experience has taught them about patience.

“I’ve been able to teach this class and learn all about maple syrup and how it’s different than the stuff that we buy in the grocery store. That stuff is mostly high fructose corn syrup and this is real maple syrup,” said Serge Gaba, a Penn State senior double majoring in computer science and information sciences and technology.

“It’s a lot of hard work to make the syrup.

“It teaches you patience and gives you an appreciation for the art,” Gaba said.

Jalelah Ahmed: 814-231-4631, @jalelahahmed