Touch of Nature presents annual Maple Syrup Festival
April 7, 2023
When you think of maple syrup tapping, what’s the first place that comes to mind? Most likely Canada or the northeastern states like Maine, New Hampshire or Vermont. Southern Illinois definitely isn’t on top of that list, but the abundance of woods located in this area has a surprising amount of trees that make maple syrup tapping easily accessible. So much so that maple syrup has become a staple of southern Illinois due to how much this little area is able to produce a large amount of high quality syrup.
Carbondale’s Touch of Nature has been collecting maple syrup for more than 30 years now, but the annual Maple Syrup Festivals officially began 12 years ago, back in 2011, to bring the community together through this local environmental center.
Unofficially however, it has been going on for over 20 years bringing together a few families who ate breakfast and spent time outside for the day.
“We really, over the past 10 years, especially tried to make it a family friendly kind of day where you just come to Touch of Nature for the day,” said Touch of Nature director Brian Croft. “Yes, you can have the maple syrup, the breakfast; but then there’s vendors, there’s music, there’s stuff for kids, and we’re all about just getting people outside.”
He started his connection with Touch of Nature 20 years ago as a student worker and began working full time soon after.
“I love it here, and when I became the director, I told everybody this is my dream job… and I know it sounds corny, but it’s legitimate,” Croft said. “I think my absolute favorite part of the event is the fact that this is sort of our season kickoff, like reemerging from our winter hibernation… I get to see these moms and dads and kids just coming out and having that first outdoor experience of the year.”
Touch of Nature’s Maple Syrup Festival has been continuously growing among the community over the past 10 years and resonating with the locals.
During the morning hours, Touch of Nature cooks up hundreds of pancakes with its signature local maple syrup for the attendees, staff and volunteers alike to enjoy before they venture out into the rest of the grounds of the festival to enjoy the live music, nature trails, demonstrations and local vendors producing a vast array of different items.
These local vendors fill the grounds selling everything from gemstones and crystals to local art for the general public to purchase and enjoy. Others bring out local supplies produced in Carbondale such as organic milk, honey, baked sweets and even mushrooms. The mushroom vendor sells varying types, some of which can be used for seasoning and in different dishes to add flavor and others for medicinal properties to quell a sore throat or naturally produce melatonin to aid in sleep. Of course, souvenirs and merchandise were similarly for sale for those whose interest lies outside of mushroom growing and production.
Live music always accompanies any Touch of Nature event. Local guitarist and singer Isaac Biver played a variety of folk tunes that attracted a large audience fairly quickly the more the strings of the guitar were strummed and heard throughout the grounds. Songs of his own creation as well as classics from the Beatles, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Fleetwood Mac and many others were heard throughout the day. Biver has begun to make a name for himself, not just in southern Illinois, but also in a few surrounding states such as Kentucky and Tennessee by performing at small venues to slowly add to his reputation.
A new fan favorite of the festival has been the three alpacas from Rolling Oak Alpaca Ranch located in Makanda, Illinois. This is their second year at the Maple Syrup Festival. The three alpacas are trained for public events and showcases for the public to feed and enjoy as well. The ranch also sells merchandise crafted from alpaca wool from the shearing seasons. There were bracelets, clothes and stuffed animals available for anyone to enjoy. The ranch has been up and running for 12 years, the work of mother-daughter duo Judy Hoepker and Morgan Stevenson
Their popularity grew within the community a few years ago when they were shown on the local news and had to take an elevator up to reach the studio for filming when they got stuck with the alpacas inside! Of course, the fire department had to be called out to help, and when the fire department got the call, rescuers thought it was fake because of how wild the story must have been, says Judy Hoepker. After all, three alpacas stuck in an elevator does sound pretty unbelievable.
“It’s been a lot of fun to do this, we’ve brought the alpacas with us both years and everybody gets a kick out of them,” Hoepker said.
Out of all the vendors located on the grounds of Touch of Nature, the alpacas were definitely visited the most.
SIU’s own Forestry Club also made an appearance, producing different lumber activity demonstrations. The first up was the wood-splitting activity where different members of the club would try to split large chunks of wood with an ax. Second was the dual-handed saw demonstration being performed on a tree-sized log of lumber, being split in half to create large plate-like wooden pieces. Next was the log-throwing face-off between most of the Forestry Club, where one team had to throw enough logs within the boundary points. Saving the best for last, the club members presented an ax-throwing demonstration, where they had to land the ax in a wooden target; needless to say, the crowd was hyped when the blade hit the target. All in all, it’s harder than it looks!
Touch of Nature has always been known to use the natural resources available to allow the general public to have fun outside while still maintaining its educational roots to help others really get to know the environment around them. The Maple Syrup Festival is just one of the many events it hosts to bring the community together through a balanced combination of learning and entertainment.
Staff reporter and photographer Mo Collar can be reached at [email protected] or on Instagram @m0.alexander.