Into the Wild: Discover forest, birds and maple syrup at Big Hill Park

In recognition of the United Nations designation of 2010 as the Year of Biodiversity, the Four Rivers Environmental Coalition and The Rock River Times present this bi-weekly series to help readers discover the amazing array of plants and animals in the rivers, prairies and woodlands “in our own back yard.” FREC is an alliance of 35 member organizations “dedicated to educating and advocating for the plants, animals, natural resources and ecosystems of the Four Rivers Region.” Please visit

By Lena Verkuilen
Welty Environmental Center

Big Hill Park is a 197-acre city park located just north of Beloit, Wis. To find it, take Highway 51 (that’s Highway 251 in Illinois) through Beloit to County Road Q and turn west. Turn north at Afton Road, and drive 1 mile to the park entrance. Like most city parks, there are picnic shelters, ball diamonds and playground equipment. What sets Big Hill Park apart from other city parks is the extensive trail system and hardwood forest community. As you drive through the stone entry columns, you’ll see a handful of non-native pines planted here a generation or more ago. To your right is a forest composed largely of red, white and bur oak trees, with a few hickories and young maples interspersed. To your left, surrounding the Badgerland Girl Scout Service Center is an open grassland area. Walk the short, fairly flat trail here to observe a variety of forest, grassland and edge bird species, and look for the tracks of deer and fox.

Follow the main park road to the lot behind the maintenance garage to reach the trailhead of the main trail on the big hill itself. This trail offers a fantastic view of the Rock River as you gently slope down the side of the hill. Look up to see large birds—bald eagles, turkey vultures and red-tailed hawks, to name a few—riding the thermals high above the hill and river. In the early spring, listen for the soft trilling of sandhill cranes returning exuberantly from their winter migrations. Another early spring sight on the hillside are blue bags hanging from the tree trunks.

The steep hill harbors a healthy sugar maple grove, or sugar bush. The City of Beloit began a maple sugaring tradition here years ago, continued today by the Welty Environmental Center. Sugar maples, usually killed by prairie fires in the region, were spared by the joint fire breaks of the Rock River and the steep hill. Fire will speed up a hill, but it cannot climb down. The river kept the fires from the base of the hill, and the sheer steepness kept the fire from coming down from the top. This provides a great opportunity to take part in a spring tradition that reaches back to the indigenous people of this land.

The story of maple sugaring begins at the height of summer. This is when the sugar maples, like all trees, are photosynthesizing—producing the sugars the plant needs for energy. Sap, which contains water, sugars, and ground minerals, moves through the tree throughout the growing season. As summer turns to fall and winter, the tree stores these sugars, now linked to form stable starches, in the root system. As the nights remain cold but the days warm above freezing, the tree begins to move sap through its systems once again. To move the sap more efficiently and fuel the new spring growth, the starches are now unlinked back into simple sugars. The act of freezing and thawing is what moves the sap up the tree in the living sapwood just below the bark. This is the stuff of maple sugaring.

To tap the sap, a small hole is drilled in the tree, just into the sapwood, and a spile is placed in the hole. The spile collects a little bit of the sap, and funnels it into the bag hung from the spile. A special bag is not required. Any container that will hold liquid will do. Many people use ice cream buckets. To change the sap into syrup and sugar, all that is needed now is to remove the water. Sugar maple sap is generally 98 percent water and only 2 percent sap—and it is one of the sweetest saps around. To people living off the land long ago, maple sugar provided a welcome food source and seasoning at a very lean time of the year. Today, it fills our hunger for a connection to a simpler time, and a simple food directly from the land. To get a firsthand look at the details of the maple sugaring process, come to Big Hill Park March 26 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. as the Welty Environmental Center takes you from the tree to the table at the free Annual Maple Sugar Festival.

Enjoy a pancake lunch (fee charged) at the Girl Scout building, with real maple syrup, of course, then explore the trails of Big Hill Park for yourself. The hepatica, bloodroot, and other early spring wildflowers should be peeking out by then.

Information about the Welty Environmental Center is available at or by calling (608) 361-1377. Information about Big Hill Park and other Beloit city parks is online at or by calling (608) 364-2929.

From the March 16-22, 2011, issue

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