Sunday, March 13, 2011

Maple Syrup

I'm fortunate enough to live next to a greenbelt of forest.  We've got some nice big trees, and enough wildlife to keep things interesting.

We also have some friends nearby with all the necessary equipment for collecting sap.   We thought it would be pretty cool to try making syrup from the maple trees "in the backyard."

Trekking out to the woods with buckets and taps in hand, we found three nice-sized maple trees.  This was not as easy as you might think.  If you're a noob like me, it's pretty easy to convince yourself you've just tapped an oak.  We drilled the holes, the kids helped tap in the spouts, and we hung the buckets up.

Here's a picture of the woods.  You can see one of the three buckets near the center.

That was last week, and despite checking every day, there was no sap.  I figured it must still be too cold (or they really were oaks!) ...  Well, today it was nice and sunny, and when I went out early in the afternoon, we actually had quite a bit of sap in the buckets.  I grabbed a bucket, and went to collect what I could - I got one pitcher's worth.

Thomas inspecting a pitcher of sap!

The next step was to take the sap, put it through a coffee filter, and boil it down into syrup

40:1 reduction. Boiled for just under an hour.

There's some sort of fancy "refractometer" that you can use to see how close you're getting.  It looks like a little jeweler monocle thingy.  Well, we didn't have one of those, so we were just eye-balling it.  Of course, I messed it up, and let it go just a little too long.

Woops.  Smells awesome though!

Instead of syrup, we got 3 little Maple-Toffee candies

The sap was running well today - just before dinner, we were able to collect a second pitcher.  We boiled it with more care this time, and voila! - syrup.  Awesome!  

The candy and syrup taste amazing,  but of course that was only one reward...

For the kiddies, we revealed yet another "it comes from a store" mystery.  They participated in the whole process to see how syrup is made.  Explaining why and how sap runs up a tree is a really neat lesson in biology to share, not to mention how excited for spring we are now.

It was a perfect excuse to get outside and spend some time in the woods each day.  Like having a backyard vegetable garden, it feels really good to produce something yourself; getting syrup from something that is just "happening" out in the woods is even cooler.

Most of all though, (and at the risk of sounding hokey), experiencing the life of the forest and the feelings that come with being alongside nature was really powerful.  Somehow between the act of ingestion and the knowledge that we were "eating a tree" was deeply satisfying and decidedly spiritual.

Finally, I can never eat enough pancakes.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Build your own DTV Antenna

The weatherman said it was supposed to be a rainy weekend, so  I figured we needed a project to work on.  I recently saw a variety of blog posts about building an antenna to pick up HD signals over the air.  I thought that would be nifty, since I don't subscribe to cable or satellite.  I'm also a big fan of salvaging junk from around the house, and trying to build something with it.  (My buddies and I once managed to build a brick-launching trebuchet with scrap from my friend's barn).

I don't remember where I originally saw the idea for building a Digital TV antenna out of coat hangers, but when I went to go searching for it, I found the Make TV video and accompanying PDF Instructions. That was neat, since I'm a Make magazine subscriber.

I scrounged around for a slab of wood, a bunch of hangers, screws and washers, some electrical tape, and the required tools (drill, sandpaper, screwdriver, wire snips).  I had everything but the 75Ohm-300Ohm F-connector transformer.  I swear I have one lying around who-knows-where, but my search was fruitless, and the local hardware store was able to bail me out for $5.  Remember your old wood-paneled TV with the two screws on the back for an antenna, and you needed a fancy adapter to connect it to your "cable box" with coaxial cable?  That's the one.

Anyhow, it all went pretty smoothly.  Here it is in 3d glory!  (a couple prongs needed some swivel-love)

I stuck it up on the roof (remember that rain forecast?), and tried running the auto-scan on my TV.


I only got 4-5 analog stations, and no digital stations.

As a control, I tried running the channel scan on the TV with nothing attached, and with just the coax cable that goes up to the roof.  I managed to only get CTV and French CBC (Radio Canada) (I'm slightly annoyed that the highest quality station I can receive is French, which I would estimate is watched by about 4 people in this city).

So, it was an improvement... we can now additionally get TVO, a really fuzzy CBC, and Global.  I'd probably have done as well with a pair of RadioShack (whatever they're called now) rabbit ears.  

TVOKids was on, so we settled in to watch Dino Dan.  That was good enough for the kids, and the reward was that they thought it was really cool that Dad's project meant they could see a new show.  Success enough for me.

They then went on to watch another 2 hours of TV.  Maybe it's a good thing it didn't work any better!