BY LINDA MONDOUX
Ask anyone in the Lanark Highlands where you can go year-round to a sit-down feast of pancakes and sausages smothered in homegrown maple syrup and they will surely point the way to Wheelers.
It’s in the hamlet of McDonalds Corners, a short half-hour car ride from the historic town of Perth on the Tay River, where Vernon Wheeler and his family welcome thousands of visitors seven days a week to their 295-hectare property. Here, in the heart of Lanark, known as the “Maple Syrup Capital of Ontario,” that sweet gold is celebrated both past and present.
While sap is no longer collected in buckets at Wheelers Pancake House and Sugar Camp, and the processing has gone high-tech, an old-style sugar shack, blacksmith shop and museum featuring a wide collection of maple syrup-related artifacts take the visitor back in time to the days when sugar-making was long, hard work.
Vernon Wheeler, now 62, remembers those days. It was while working on his family’s farm, which included three small sugar bushes, that Wheeler decided as a young boy: “I don’t want to be a sugar-maker — I want to be a logger, because I didn’t want to work so hard.”
“We did it the old way with a bucket and horses,” says Wheeler, now patriarch of his own family operation, located about 10 kilometres from where his parents created maple syrup the old-fashioned way. And while he didn’t become a logger, he’s happy to be a sugar-maker, and helps to contribute to the research that will ensure maple syrup is a viable industry in Canada for years to come.
A plaque at the museum commemorates maple products as a culturally significant part of the nation’s heritage. According to the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, products from the iconic sugar maple tree have a rich history in Canada, being valued by native Indians long before the arrival of European settlers.
“Their production and trade have played an important role in the economy of the Maple Belt, notably by providing supplementary income that helped ensure the survival of many family farms,” the plaque says. “After breaking into the international market in 1929, Canada became the world’s leading maple products producer and exporter. With the tradition of sugaring-off in the spring, maple syrup symbolizes the end of winter and is associated with Canada’s national identity and way of life at home and abroad.”
After immersing yourself in the history of maple syrup — to the days when all sap was collected in buckets tied to trees and horse and wagons were used to carry tanks of the nectar to the sugar shack for processing in wood-fired evaporators — you can walk or snowshoe your way along trails that will take you up close with the nation’s most famous tree.
The perfect storm for maple syrup
Did you know that sugar maple only grows naturally in eastern North America? While sugar maple has been planted on a small scale in some other countries, including areas in Europe and Asia, these areas do not have the unique weather pattern necessary to trigger commercial flows of sap. This unique set of circumstances is only found in a band of North America covering Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia in Canada, and 14 of the northeastern United States as far west as Minnesota. That’s because the sugar maple species in this region has adapted over thousands of years to a unique combination of geology, climate and soils.
The leader in maple syrup production is Canada — 80 per cent of the world’s supply comes from our special trees — with the U.S., especially Vermont, producing the rest. Commercial operations, like Wheeler’s, have long done away with sap-collecting buckets, using a tubing system instead. Evaporators are now fired by gas and temperatures controlled via electronic gadgetry.
Quebec leads Canadian production — about 90 per cent — with Ontario contributing about five per cent of the total, with much of that produced in Lanark County. Wheeler says his operation produces about 15,000 litres of maple syrup each year, depending on the weather. That’s an average of one litre per tap.
According to Canadian Geographic
, Wheelers offers one of the 10 best maple experiences in Canada, the only one in Ontario to be named to the recent honour roll. But while the museum, pancake house and trails are open year-round, it’s in late winter, when the weather begins to warm up, that maple excitement soars, reaching a peak during March Break, when families come out to the sugar bush for tours, sleigh rides and that favourite of young and old, taffy on snow — known in Quebec as tire Ste. Catherine.
What is it about maple syrup that unites Canadians? According to Wheeler, we love it because it’s the “truest natural food.”
“There’s no preservatives. No nothing. It’s totally natural,” he tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. “It’s the purest food the earth has to offer.”
According to the Ontario government, the maple industry is worth an estimated $15 million annually to the provincial economy. This figure does not include related tourism, nor the heritage value of maple syrup that so many of us enjoy each spring, an experience that is “very difficult to put a value on.”
If you can’t make it to Lanark County for this season’s sap run, plan to visit nearby Perth for the Festival of the Maples. Held the last week of April, the festival celebrates its 35th year in 2011, with the grand finale in downtown heritage Perth on April 30. There’ll be live entertainment, craft and artisan vendors, antique car display, midway, petting zoo and lots of food, including maple syrup and taffy from area producers.
Along with Wheelers Pancake House and Sugar Bush, there are several maple operations across Ontario to visit, including those showcasing old-time sugaring and pancake houses. Here is a snapshot of what’s on tap:
in the Cumberland section of Ottawa has been producing maple syrup on a wood-burning fire since 1945. The sugar bush, open March 4, offers guided tours, taffy on snow and pancakes. There’s also a petting farm and horse-drawn sleigh rides on weekends, with special events for March Break.
Fulton’s Pancake House & Sugar Bush
in Pakenham is open year-round, with tours and horse-drawn rides through the 150-year-old operation available in spring. The pancake house is open beginning Feb. 19, with all things maple on hand for purchase in the gift shop.
Trillium Ridge Sugar Works
in Shannonville, between Belleville and Kingston, plays host to Maplefest the last week of March each year. There’s pancakes, entertainment, sugar bush tours and wagon rides.
McLean Berry Farm
in Lakefield hosts the 11th annual Buckhorn MapleFest March 19-20, March 26-27 and April 2-3. There will be lots of live entertainment, sugar bush walking tours, horse-drawn hay rides, pioneer display, children’s activities, pancake breakfast and more.
White Meadows Farms
in Pelham, in rural St. Catharines, boasts tours, beginning with a covered hay wagon ride to the sugar bush, where costumed interpreters explain the history of maple syrup, pancake house, barnyard skating rink, gift shop and more. Sugar bush tours are now open.
Purple Woods Conservation Area on the Oshawa/Scugog border is home to the annual Purple Woods Maple Syrup Festival
hosted by the Central Lake Conservation Authority March 12-20 and March 26-27 and April 2-3. See how maple syrup is made at the sugar shack, shop for maple products and enjoy all-day pancakes, with proceeds going to non-profit organizations. There are also horse-drawn wagon rides.
It’s maple syrup time at Conservation Halton
Feb. 26-April 3. See historical and modern methods of tapping, collecting and boiling sap — including those old-fashioned black kettles — to make maple syrup. Choose from two locations: Mountsberg or Crawford Lake.
In Oro-Medonte, near Orillia, Shaw Maple Products and Pancake House
serves up maple syrup at a 100-seat restaurant next to the evaporator house. Sleigh and wagon rides are available, depending on the weather.
McLachlan Family Maple Syrup & Pancake House
in Komoka, near London, offers horse-drawn wagon rides through the bush, tours, antiques, maple products and a 200-seat restaurant.
MyNewWaterfrontHome.com — February 2011