Smell is one of our most powerful senses. It evokes memories long forgotten. A particular aroma can take you straight back to childhood, vividly recalling your mother’s favourite spaghetti sauce. Or perhaps the first time you visited the local fair.
For Lakefield College School’s Head of Cooper House and Outdoor Education Assistant, Garret Hart, his memory comes alive with the smell of maple syrup. When he describes the first time he came across the Sugar Shack at LCS, he doesn’t just tell a story—he paints a poignant, elaborate, detailed picture.
“I was walking through the ropes course behind Colebrook House, and there was this amazing smell wafting through the air. I’ll never forget it. I followed it to see a motorcycle parked by a little tin shack. There sat Ken Sunderland in a puffy yellow down vest, casually reading an article from the American Association of Physicists. I remember it so clearly because he had the demeanour of someone reading a comic strip. It almost felt like he was expecting me.”
Unbeknownst to Garret, a torch was passed to him that day in 2002—one that has deep roots not only in Canadian history, but also at The Grove.
Roots, fate and the $1,000 bottle of syrup.
In terms of LCS history, maple harvesting has always been a feature in some form or another. Its function has varied over the years. While syrup was originally made to supply the Dining Hall, its detailed infrastructure provided other opportunities. A letter from Bill Amos ’48, for example, talks about “maple syrup duty” in the 1940s for those who were late for chapel.
The basic process of maple harvesting is straightforward. You tap trees in the spring, collect and boil the sap, then bottle the finished product. That said, it is by no means easy. As such, the process—and scale of the operation—has varied significantly. There were many years of moderate production with former faculty member and Head of Rashleigh House Ken Sunderland at the tin shack. This was followed by Garret’s first bare-bones attempt in 2006—where he tapped 20 trees and boiled sap on a barbecue outside of Grove House.
If you trace the roots of today’s Sugar Shack, they lead straight to an intervention in 2006 by faculty member Mike Arsenault. As Mike watched Garret struggle with his primitive set-up, he suggested they use the Dining Hall’s steam cauldron. The power of this technology changed everything.
Fate, on a variety of levels, moved quickly.
A request to produce 200 bottles of syrup for a Grove Gala opened new doors. His team embraced the finer points of production and delivery—and captured the Grove Society’s attention in the process. As a result, they graciously funded a professional-grade evaporator in 2006. A waterfront shed, that was once Winder Smith’s garage, storage for the Cadets in the ’60s and kayaks in the ’80s and ’90s, was offered as a permanent home in 2007, giving us the Sugar Shack as we know it today.
No mention of the story is complete without former LCS Master Michael Townsend ’51. His friendship drew new arcs, both technical and historical. He grew Garret’s understanding of the history of LCS and deepened his appreciation of The Grove and its natural surroundings.
“Over many late nights, I learned what maple harvesting is truly about… this live connection with people and nature. Warmed by the steam, we’d open the bi-fold doors, watch the shimmering lake, hear the ice crack and the coyotes howl and talk for hours. He’d tell stories about Pullen and Mackenzie and why their names are painted in the rafters. He’d talk about combining flavours…we would just meander from topic to topic.”
One can’t help but think this is all somehow infused into the Sugar Shack’s hallmark achievement—the $1,000 bottle of syrup purchased by Arthur Irving Sr. and Ken Irving ’80 in 2009. (We’ll leave that story for Garret to tell.)
I went down to the crossroads…
When asked to describe maple harvesting in a sentence, Garret doesn’t hesitate.
Its core essence is the Canadian experience.
It’s an intersection…connecting everyone from First Nations and early Canadian settlers, to modern foodie culture. It links science, nature, the environment, the local community and even business. Most of all, it connects students and education in unique and powerful ways.
When the extraordinary is ordinary.
For LCS students, maple harvesting presents an experience they simply can’t get anywhere else. History teachers use it as a doorway to the past. Science teachers can show principles in action. Business teachers can illustrate a full-scale operation from production to finished product.
Lessons come alive at the Sugar Shack. Students can see it, touch it, feel it, smell it, and taste it—as anyone who has sampled Garret’s maple toffee will attest.
What makes it so special, though, is that this isn’t an extraordinary thing. This is Lakefield. You don’t have to take a field trip. This is your everyday classroom.
Garret can’t emphasize this enough. Having a resource like this creates incredible opportunities for students. It allows them to connect with people, the natural world, and knowledge in a highly creative way. Looking to the future, he sees an innovative environmental entrepreneurship course.
“Maple harvesting vividly illustrates the sustainable management of a resource—from harvesting and production, through to package design and delivery. It combines hard skills, soft skills…and presents a great platform for team problem-solving.”
Based on his progress so far, one can’t help but picture his vision coming to life in the near future.
You can almost taste it.
Watch highlights of our outdoor education students learning about making maple syrup at The Grove