PIQUA — As the outside temperature reaches the 50 degree mark, most of us look longingly out our windows, wishing that we had an excuse to enjoy the first vestiges of spring.
Students in the Environmental Occupations program at the Upper Valley Career Center have no such worries. When their fellow students are “chomping at the bit” to get outdoors, juniors and seniors in Jim Metz and Michaella Quinter’s classrooms, are spending time in the woods.
The sounds of chainsaws and Gators break the long-winter’s silence as they clear honeysuckle from around the maple trees, giving not only better access but giving the trees more room to grow and prosper.
After being delayed by our harsh winter weather, students began tapping the maple trees at Willowbrook earlier this week, preparing to collect the precious sweet sap, the key ingredient in maple syrup.
Friday was the first collection day of the season. Students hit the muddy trails, some in jackets, some bravely wearing short-sleeved shirts as they sought out the metal buckets and blue bags hanging from tapped trees.
Typical of the students was Justin Daniel, a senior from Covington. As he carried containers of sap to waiting buckets, Daniel told how he loves the outdoors. He said that he has always loved being outdoors and had been “on Indian Lake since I was 6 months old.”
Daniel sees the best part of the process they are involved in as, “seeing the change from sap to syrup,” as they boil the raw material into the pure sugary substance that we pour on pancakes.
Quinter and Metz describe the importance of this project as not just a way to get the syrup, but as “a project students take from start to finish.”
Besides clearing the undergrowth, students cut down selected Ash trees, splitting the wood and using it as fuel for the wood fires under the boiling sap.
“It connects kids back to nature,” Quinter said. Metz added, ” Like our forefathers, it is a way to connect to our past.”
All of this is part of a larger curriculum. “Forestry is a serious business,” Metz said. “Urban Forestry is important in today’s world.” Most of today’s tree trimmers, as well as parks employees are certified arborists. The Environmental Occupations program at the Career Center allows students to have that certification before they graduate high school.
Included in the class this spring are four “Discovery Class” students, special needs students who spend nine weeks working with the “regular” class as they explore different career fields.
Quinter and Metz expect to begin boiling the raw sap by Monday.
The season will culminate with a public open house at Willowbrook on March 23, from 1-4 p.m.