MATTOON, Ill. — It was a chance to not only taste the traditional pancake topping but see the age-old process of making it as well.

Visitors to Douglas-Hart Nature Center's annual "Sap Tappin'" event Saturday (March 16) got to have a pancake breakfast inside the center then venture onto its grounds to see how maple tree sap is made into syrup.

Next to a fire where sap was boiling in a kettle, volunteer Greg Capps of Mattoon showed bottles with sap in the various stages of the process.

"It looks and tastes about like water," he said of the sap right out of tree, adding that the watery appearance is because that's mostly what the sap is at that point.

"You've got to cook all the water out of it," Capps said.

Another bottle had a pale brown liquid he said was the result of a few hours of cooking and a third had darker brown content that comes from six to eight hours of boiling.

Capps said most of the visitors who stopped at his demonstration didn't realize how long it takes to make the syrup. Another surprise, he added, is how much tree sap is needed: 40 gallons to make one gallon of syrup.

He said he and his wife Crystal and their kids decided to volunteer for the event because they enjoy outdoor activities.

"It's my first time making syrup," he said. "I used to watch my grandpa make it years ago."

Showing the old-fashioned way of making syrup that dates back to pioneers and Native Americans was one of the ideas behind Saturday's event, nature center Education Director Jennifer Tariq said. Some people, especially youngsters, don't know that syrup is made from maple sap, she said.

"Today's about thanking a tree for that yummy syrup," Tariq said.

The demonstrations also included allowing visitors to use hand drills to get sap from the nature center's silver maple trees, which Tariq said can happen any time the temperature is above freezing. The chilly morning Saturday barely qualified but "when we had 60 degrees the other day it was like a faucet," she said.

A new feature of this year's event was a demonstration of the making of the spigots used to draw the sap from the trees, she also said.

Saturday marked the fourth year for the event and Tariq said breakfast sales served as a fundraiser for the nature center. And with the "iffy" weather in March, the event is also a way to let people know there are things to do at the nature center all year long, she added.

"We want people to just get out here," Tariq said.