Escape the Urban: Maple Pilgrimages

20 Mar

Growing up in Buffalo in the late seventies and early eighties, I was regularly afflicted with that most dreaded of suburban pursuits: the Sunday Afternoon Car Ride. A fond childhood memory for both of my parents in the automobile-crazy post-World War II boom years, the “car ride” was a pleasure they too wished to pass on. Now we as a nation drive so much on daily commutes, and are so conscious of gas prices and environmental damage, that simply motoring a tank of gas away for fun on a weekend sounds positively antiquated. And maybe it was in 1982 as well. But that didn’t stop us from simply piling in the white station wagon and driving around Ontario or into the Southern Tier with no real goal or planned route. Most of my memories of that time revolve around boredom and motion sickness, but in truth it wasn’t all bad. I have fond memories of Sunday’s in the Fall, when we’d be sure to stay in radio range of Van Miller’s voice calling Buffalo Bills games. And once each year, in the spring, we’d leave with a purpose, and have a real destination: the Maple Tree Inn.

Which is how I found myself pouring my own children into a van before dawn this past Friday to drive two hours to Angelica and make the annual Castner pilgrimage to the Mecca of pancakes and bow down before the creators of the world’s greatest maple syrup. The Cartwrights have been making brown sugary heaven in a backwoods shack for over a hundred years, and serving all-you-can-eat breakfast as an excuse to get people to crave more maple syrup for almost fifty. We went nearly every year when I was a kid, and now I still get the hankering come March – in my internal body clock, melting snow, budding crocuses and spring mud tastes like pancakes.

At this point you may be asking what place eating 2000 calories worth of griddled batter has in an outdoor column. Fair question. All regular trekkers and amateur athletes, like myself, know a full breakfast is key to sustaining outdoor activity throughout the course of a trip. Consider this an indulgent option to remotivate you to get your road miles in the next day. 


The quest-like nature of the expedition and the many hurdles that must be overcome combine in a sweet confection that only adds to the eventual pleasure. First, a small window of opportunity. The restaurant is only open for two months each year, when the sap flows from mid-February to early April. Second, the two hour drive, literally over the river and through the woods, where I spotted many a swollen torrent ripe for white water rafting. Third, the wait. There is a line at all hours, and under all circumstances, as you battle bus-loads of sharp-elbowed geriatrics. But the struggle only whets the appetite, builds the anticipation, makes the feast that follows that much more satisfying.

It is all worth it – the wait, the drive, the mean pensioners – when that first steaming pile of flapjacks arrives. The perennial favorite is buckwheat, gritty and grey and fluffy to soak up as much maple syrup as possible. If you don’t like buckwheat, buckwheat is also available.  If you still aren’t sold, Scrooge cheeseburgers are on the menu, though I have never seen one served.

I dream of the cascading, never-ending, Paschal-font of pancakes all year, but truly they are simply maple syrup delivery devices, a vehicle to transport boiled tree sap to my mouth. I am a maple syrup snob after being spoiled with such authenticity year after year – the brown gold is thick but not too heavy, far more substantial than the supermarket sugar-water labeled “breakfast product” by its own admission. I taste, and savor, and shovel some more. My sons and I ate our original plates plus three refills, but who’s counting, when pancakes and syrup is involved.

Until next year. In the meantime, I have some running to do.

2 Responses to “Escape the Urban: Maple Pilgrimages”

  1. RaChaCha March 20, 2011 at 9:36 am #

    YUM!! I love the Maple Tree. My ‘rents were also aficionados of the Sunday Drive, and more recently I went there with a hometown hiking club that would visit the Maple Tree after a long annual spring hike on the Finger Lakes Trail. Your younguns are indeed fortunate to get an annual visit there — and a good look at our great WNY countryside on the way there and back.

    This article has given me a hankerin’ — I’m going to have to find a maple sugaring & pancakes operation a little closer to home and make it the destination for a long run.

  2. Buck Turgidson March 21, 2011 at 6:29 am #

    Check out Producers statewide are participating. The site has several local production facilities that are giving demos, etc. Taking the family down this Saturday.

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