As spring arrives, the days start to lengthen, and warmth returns to the sunshine. The re-awakening of the forest after its slumber through the cold winter months marks a special time of year for our family: It is time to make maple syrup. The craft of syrup making is an intergenerational activity, passed down from my father-in-law, who first made syrup in New Brunswick. And I’ve passed the activity onto my daughter, Dayna, who now helps me make syrup on our small farm in Sault Ste. Marie.
On our farm, syrup making is a traditional enterprise. No reverse-osmosis equipment, pipelines or vacuum systems anywhere in sight. Instead, tucked away in the roof of the barn are stacks of buckets, lids and spiles. After a good washing to remove any accumulated dust, the equipment is loaded onto my daughter’s toboggan, and a pair of snowshoes adorns my feet. At this point, I’m mandated to give both my daughter and the equipment a ride out to the “deep dark forest” that is our backyard woodlot. I’m encouraged with the occasional “mush!” or “giddy-up!”
We have about 220 tap-able trees on the property, but I tap about 70 in any given year, allowing the trees two years of rest in between. While this isn’t necessary, I think it’s a good way to ensure the health of the trees, and in an average year, 70 taps will produce an abundance of sap. Tapping a tree is quite easy. I use a cordless electric drill to drill a 3/8” hole about three inches deep into the tree on a slight upward angle. A tree should be about 12 inches in diameter or larger to be tapped, and large trees can be tapped with two or three holes.
The first year I tapped, I made the holes at a comfortable working height on the tree (mid-chest height). Mistake! By the time the snow melted, the buckets were suspended about six feet in the air! Being wiser now, I drill the tap holes about 18 inches above the snow line, so the buckets can be hung without my needing a ladder to collect sap in late spring.
My daughter and I take turns drilling holes and hammering (tapping) the metal spiles into the trees. A spile is a metal tube that allows the sap to flow out of the tree. It has a hook that the bucket hangs from. Once the holes are drilled, the spiles are tapped, and the buckets and lids are hung, the waiting begins.
The sap flows on days when the daytime temperature rises above freezing (10 C. seems ideal). The sap drips into the buckets, and on a quiet and warm day you can hear drip, drip, drip all around you in the woodlot. For the sap to flow, the temperature must drop below freezing at night. Why you might ask? During the day, when it is warm, the sap flows up from the roots of the tree to the branches, carrying sugar stored in the roots to supply nutrients and water to the buds that will soon burst forth as new leaves.
It would be a one-way trip for the sap if it were not for below-freezing temperatures at night. As night begins, the sap starts to freeze in the very fine branches starting at the top of the tree, and the freezing progresses downward through larger branches and the trunk of the tree over night. Because ice occupies a larger volume than water, the freezing of the sap forces the liquid back down the stem of the tree. It is this repeated freezing and thawing of the sap that allows it to flow up and down the tree and into our waiting pails.
On sunny warm spring days, my daughter and I race home after work/school with excitement. To encouraging words of “mush!” I pull the toboggan out to the trees. She holds a five-gallon water pail and a big funnel. It’s a bit like an Easter egg hunt for her; she visits every tree to see what Mother Nature and the weather have given us. On a good day, the buckets will be brimming full with as much as two gallons per tap. My daughter likes those days because it means lots of toboggan rides from the trees to the large 55-gallon plastic drum I use to store the sap: “Mush, Mush!” she says.
When the weather is good, we will fill the drum in two or three days and start filling a second drum. With a little luck, by the weekend we will have collected one or two drums of sap, and it is time to make syrup. In late winter, I will have put my homemade evaporator in place. It is a 200-gallon oil tank, laid on its side, which sits on top of cement blocks, with an improvised chimney and door making a wood stove suitable for the job. Fire wardens everywhere should relax at this point; the evaporator sits outside, in my driveway, surrounded by snowbanks. (Don’t try to make maple syrup indoors. The volume of slightly sticky water that goes into the air during the evaporation process could ruin your house).
I fill the stove with wood, place my evaporation pan on top of the stove (it’s a big pan three feet wide, six feet long, eight inches deep), and pour about 20 gallons of sap into the pan. The next 10 hours as the air is filled with the smell of wood smoke and sugar. While more sap is added to the pan and wood to the fire, while we partake in snowball fights, toboggan rides and general mischief in the backyard..
Somehow through all of that chaos, the 55 gallons of sap is added to the pan, and through constant boiling, excess water is driven off until about 5 gallons of very sweet, brown liquid remains. But it’s not syrup yet. The concentrate is transferred (and filtered) into a series of smaller pans, and boiling continues, until about 1.5 gallons of liquid remains.
At this point, the snowball fights come to a stop, and close attention must be paid to the job. As the sap approaches the point of becoming syrup, it foams easily, and the pot can boil over, ruining 10 hours of effort. While it’s possible to judge the formation of the syrup by feel, I use a candy thermometer to be certain. Water boils at 212 degrees F, but because of the sugar in the sap, the boiling point of sap is higher, about 219 degrees (give or take a little, depending on how thick you like it).
So, with careful stirring and constant checks of the thermometer, the boiling of the sap continues, until I say, “what do you think Dayna?” At which point she says “It’s done!”
The finished maple syrup is taken to the kitchen, and filtered one last time as about six one-litre bottles are filled with the product of our efforts. The sweet smell of syrup lies heavy in the air of the whole house as we head off to sleep for the night. I’m sure my daughter will dream about a stack of pancakes and fresh syrup for breakfast. Spring is a wonderful season when you live among the sugar maples.