Making maple sugar in the Detroit Sugarbush

Members of the Detroit Sugarbush Project return to Rouge Park, where a fire burned again — and with it came calls for healing and understanding.


On Feb. 18, people with the Detroit Sugarbush Project – many of them Indigenous – gathered in Rouge Park for a ritual to mark the start of the annual maple syrup harvest. The burning of a sacred fire drew the attention of law enforcement. Soon more than a dozen Detroit Police officers arrived and ordered the ceremony to end.

As WDET’s Russ McNamara reports, a fire burned again in the sugarbush and with it came calls for healing and understanding.

Jefferson Ballew sings a welcome song in the Rouge Park Sugarbush on April 11.

Listen: Jefferson Ballew and his wife Sonja sing a welcome song in the Rouge Park Sugarbush.


Sonja Ballew explains how she can tell the temperature of the syrup — and how ready it is to be worked into sugar — just by using her paddle.

Listen: Sonja Ballew explains the ancient cooking technology — a carved wooden paddle.


“It’s getting close”


Members of the Detroit Sugarbush Project pour bubbling maple sap into a carved basswood trough before turning it into maple sugar.

Listen: Debating whether the sap is ready to be turned into sugar.


Sonja Ballew holds the basswood trough while her husband, Jefferson, agitates maple syrup into maple sugar.

Listen: Jefferson Ballew explains how the trough helps turn sap into sugar while working.


Using a paddle, Antonio Cosme works reduced maple sap into maple sugar in a carved basswood trough.

Listen: Antonio and Jefferson work the sap into sugar — to Sonja’s approval.


Jefferson Ballew checks the consistency of the maple sugar.

Listen: Everyone gets a taste of the finished product.



In the background, you can hear the trill of a red-bellied woodpecker and the voice of Randiah Camille Green, a Detroit Metro Times reporter who wrote her own excellent article about the day in the Detroit Sugarbush.

All photos and video by Russ McNamara

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  • Russ McNamara
    Russ McNamara is the host of All Things Considered for 101.9 WDET, presenting local news to the station’s loyal listeners. He's been an avid listener of WDET since he moved to metro Detroit in 2002.