March is ideal time to check out Uihlein’s Maple Nature Trail
By Tim Rowland
It was one of those March days when varying conditions required we pack muck boots, microspikes, snowshoes, skis, crampons and a caterpillar tractor and figure out at the trailhead which would be of most use.
Our casual destination was Heaven Hill, where we would raise a symbolic toast to its founder and Lake Placid icon Henry Uihlein II. The Uihlein family had a century-long connection to Schlitz (a beer that was better than it tasted), which was cemented in 1875 when Joseph Schlitz went down with the SS Schiller — a wreck that, for corporate irresponsibility, would have made Norfolk Southern wince.
Schlitz left operation of the brewery to the Uihlein family, including Henry, grandfather of Henry II. Like so many, Henry II came to the Adirondacks after contracting tuberculosis, and loved what he saw, becoming, among other things, president of the Lake Placid Skating Association.
Among the local artifacts bearing his name is the Uihlein Sugar Maple Field Station at 157 Bear Cub Lane in Lake Placid, where Cornell maintains a 200-acre research forest and taps 7,000 trees with more than 100 miles of tubing.
We stopped in of course because, you know — maple syrup.
Technician Keith Otto said the season was just getting started; tapping spot thaws in January can be done, but it has its risks, notably the chance of sap freezing up in the machinery should temperatures suddenly plummet.
But for the next few weeks, connoisseurs will be in their element. “We consume it, breathe it, drink it, live it,” he said. “It’s so good, once the sap starts flowing, we don’t drink water.”
To a practiced palate, the quality can vary from day to day. A lot is known about the science of sugaring — a process that used to coax a third of a gallon of syrup per tree now produces half a gallon.
But mysteries remain. “One year it was all dark, and we don’t know why, Otto said.
One added bonus is that visitors to Uihlein can see the forest from which the sap runneth on a new, mile-long Maple Nature Trail that begins across the road from the sugar house.
This trail has an interesting origin story. Some navigation apps employed by hikers seeking the trails at Heaven Hill just down the road would mistakenly be directed to Uihlein instead. “They’d be off into the woods before we could catch them,” Otto said.
So, in the name of giving people what they wanted, a trail was born. About 10 inches of fresh powder had just fallen, but Otto recommended snowshoes over skis due to a couple of tricky ups and downs. Beth and I rummaged through our half ton of gear until we triumphantly produced two sets of snowshoes that appeared to match and headed across the road.
Passing under a sign welcoming us to the forest, the trail takes an immediate right off a service road and climbs gently at first and then more moderately into the forest.
Tubing has replaced taps and buckets of old, and the trail provides a fascinating look at a working forest. Otto said it takes 40 to 50 years for maples to grow to a tappable size of eight to 10 inches across. The research farm also taps birch trees — mostly yellow, since white birch is not long-lived enough to reach dependable production size. Birch syrup is darker, with a more caramel or butterscotch flavor.
We continued to break the deep white fluff through a beautiful hardwood forest studded with evergreens on one of those scintillating blue days that has the endorphins lined up so as not to be the last one in the pool.
At about the halfway point the well-marked trail turns left to join an old carriage road popular with skiers. After a short jaunt on the carriage road the trail turns left and then winds pleasantly through the woods before dropping off an esker — it was not labeled as an esker, but that would be my unpracticed guess.
Spruce becomes more prevalent as the trail rejoins the service road and descends through a memorable forest highlighted by a random and resplendent grove of white birch.
This is an attractive hike at any time, and with less than 200 feet in total elevation gain, it’s an excellent family trail to complement a visit to Uihlein during sugaring season. Or whenever your app malfunctions.