This Is One Sweet Time of The Year

Admittedly, one of the few times in my life I have trespassed onto another’s property was back 25+ years ago when I was at the ripe old age of 15.   I was a curious, troublemaking kid who along with my best friend, Mitch, decided we had to experience something this landowner had on his property.

It was a Sunday morning in early spring located in a woods which sloped steeply down towards the road.   Suddenly, much to both of our horror…a truck approached and our gig was about to be busted.   Mitch and I ran for what seemed like an hour uphill to vacate the property.   Finally, in complete exhaustion, we paused to catch our breath with heartbeats still racing along at a hyper tachycardic pace.   We agreed this little scare took at least 10 years off of our young lives.   But, it was worth it to satisfy a curiosity.
What intrigued us so much we just had to be out in this particular woods?   It was spring…the snow was melting…and the sap was running.   It was sugaring time in the maple woods and nothing was going to deter Mitch and I from experiencing this interesting outdoor activity.   Or at least not until that truck approached.

That very next year we mustered the courage to ask the landowner if we could try tapping a few trees ourselves.   Permission was granted, but we were told to go higher up on the hill where the present tapping wasn’t taking place.   Not a problem.   Since we only had about 5 spiles to begin with, we found such instructions quite livable given we were finally officially in business collecting sap to make maple syrup.

Our first lesson came in tree identification.   Simply finding a suitable tree in the woods does not alone make it a good candidate for tapping.   As Mitch and I first discovered, tapping into a basswood tree doesn’t produce the same results.   Oh, I can only imagine the belly laugh those old time syrup producers must have had seeing us tapping indiscriminately into the wrong trees.   But, that is how youngsters learn.   Eventually, we were able to discern which were the maple trees and soon the flow was underway.

Tapping maple trees, besides being lots of fun mixed with hard work, is a very interesting activity.   Did you know it is one of the only commodities that is produced solely in North America?   Indeed, there is some historical dispute over the matter…but some sources say that when the explorers started arriving the Indians taught the technique to the explorers.   Other say it was vice versa.   Either way, the fact remains it is a North American activity that has long been a rite of spring in many woodlots.

For those who only have a basic understanding of the process, you collect sap from the trees daily and eventually you need to reduce out the excess moisture by a process called evaporating.   When the sap is in its rawest form, it usually contains about two percent sugar making it only discernibly sweet when tasted directly from the tree.   But with the long condensation process, eventually the sap is evaporated down to a highly concentrated sugary substance with a pleasingly nice maple taste.

All of this is hard work…especially if you don’t have the proper equipment and do it as a hobby.   It takes on average about 45 gallons of raw sap to boil down to make one gallon of pure maple syrup.   As I recall, if you are doing it over an open fire evaporating down 45 gallons of sap is a day-long project in itself.

Moreover, raw sap doesn’t keep for much more than a few days.   That’s why the best sugarbushes have a system (some even have a pipeline) where the sap flows immediately to the evaporator and during this time of the year it can be a very busy process.

Would-be maple producers know that the sap flow is at its best during the time of the year when the days are warming above freezing, but the nights still dip below the freezing mark.   Once the flow begins…it can go on for several weeks…but once the buds start popping out on the trees it’s time to pull the taps.

To me, tapping maple trees is one of the earliest signs that springtime cannot be far away.   I’ve seen people tapping trees in urban areas right along busy city sidewalks…as well as out in the “sugarbush” far from any paved road.   It’s hard work…it’s best done with others to assist you…but the rewards can be quite sweet, to say the least.

If you live in maple country you deserve to experience this interesting rite of spring.   If you don’t want to invest in the equipment or involve yourself with that much work…check out a local nature center.   Many of them have maple sugar programs where you can be as hands on as you want to be.   Some might even allow you to taste the delicious fruit of your labors some call liquid gold.

© 2005 Jim Braaten.  All Rights Reserved.   No Reproduction without Prior Permission.

British Fox Hunting Ban…What It Means To Us

I’m sure most American sportsmen found the news yesterday of a British ban on fox hunting to be nothing more than an interesting news tidbit, mostly because it does not have any direct effect on our sporting interests here in the U.S.   But is that true?   Does the event taking place across the big pond have little or no impact on the way we enjoy our hunting sports?   For more information on this topic click here.

I guess time will tell…but I still find the news quite disconcerting, to say the least.   While I’ll be the first to admit that I do not understand the law-making process of our European ally, it seems quite evident that a small group of policy makers have come into power to outlaw what is a very popular and profitable activity that has existed for ages.   The thoughts of a British fox hunt conjure up a storied image of well-dressed hunters on horseback with dogs trained for the chase.

But opponents to the hunt say that when the dogs finally chase down the fox it meets a barbaric death as the dogs kill as nature intended them to do.   They call it senseless and unnecessary cruelty and that is the main motivation for why the activity must be stopped.

Unfortunately, these “anti’s” have no concept of nature.   Mortality in the wild does not always meet with a pleasant and aesthetic death for the wild critter.   Nature by its very nature is cruel and it is simply part of the fact of life.   When wild populations become out of control nature generally has its own mechanism for keeping things in check – and usually this means disease.   I can assure you that if you’ve ever seen a mange-ridden fox dieing a slow, agonizing death due to disease you might quickly opt for the relatively quick kill by the dogs.

My concern, however, is this news will surely give groups in the U.S. a “shot in the arm” to seek similar measures with our outdoor sports.   They’ve certainly tried to do so in the past, and it is almost certain we can expect more challenges to our sports in the future.   A British ban on fox hunting only shows to these groups that with the right strategy almost anything is possible.   Indeed, bringing down a century’s old tradition is not only possible…BUT IT JUST HAPPENED apparently.

I think this should prove to all of us the importance of fighting this battle together.   Hunters must join forces with trappers, and fishermen must likewise be part of the same group.   We must meet these challenges with a forceful response so as not to let the groups get a foot-hold into bringing our traditions down.

There is a sort of do-gooder mentality that seems to rear its ugly head whenever it’s election time.   I think we can learn from this and better appreciate the importance of putting the right people into the jobs as our elected officials.   After all, there’s a lot at stake here and we cannot allow what happened in Europe yesterday to be repeated in and shape or form here in the U.S.

Surely the American sportsman does not participate with the same flair and elegance in hunting dress as our European partners, but nonetheless the activities we pursue in this continent have every bit the same importance and traditions attached to them.   We all need for this to be a wake up call to do a better job of uniting and protecting our rights.   Sometimes I fear sportsmen can get too complacent believing that their rights will never be effected or challenged.   But being lulled into this type of thinking is one of the most dangerous mistakes we can make…just ask our sporting brethren over in Britain who must now struggle to get their hunting rights reinstated.

© 2004 Jim Braaten. All Rights Reserved.   No Reproduction without Prior Permission.

These Deer Know How To Make The News

I always enjoy a good news story when it’s about a deer.   Today, in fact, there were two quite interesting stories about deer.   Both were unusual, yet entertaining if you enjoy the sometimes exciting escapades of these cloven-hooved creatures.

The first story is about a deer out at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.   You can read the complete story here.   It seems a young buck was injured and confused after likely being hit by a car.   The deer then stumbled its way through automatic doors and into a baggage claim area where it had to be tranquilized by animal control officers, and eventually destroyed because of its injuries.

Perhaps one of the funniest things about this story is how airport officials were quick to point out that security had not been breached.   How embarrassing would that be to have a deer get into a secured area and go unnoticed?   The writer of the article also pointed out that the deer was a buck, "although it didn’t have much of a rack"…as if this information was even germane to the story.

Of course, there was another story today where the buck’s rack was quite pertinent.   Did you hear of the 27-point buck shot near Duluth?   It sounded to me like the deer wanted to die, because the hunter was given more chances and missed than some hunters get in three seasons worth of hunting.

According to writer Sam Cook, with the Duluth News Tribune, the hunter shot twice and missed both times.   The third shot was a leg hit…and the fourth shot was another miss.   Finally the hunter caught up with the deer where it was bedded down…and made the shot count.   In the end he discovered a 27 point deer with a very impressive rack.

It seems every fall there is a story of legendary deer that is taken by a hunter in some part of the state.   So far this fall the “27 Point Buck” is the story for 2004 in Minnesota.   Certainly the hunter is due his bragging rights, but did he have to be so honest in describing his lack of shooting proficiency.   Sure, it makes for a good story, but the way this buck’s demise reads it might be better described as a suicide buck.   It did not take great hunting prowess to bag this unusual boy.   Then again, sometimes it pays to be luckier than good.

A non-typical buck like this one is truly a trophy in its own right.   You can hunt an entire lifetime and never see a buck such as this one in the wild.   Experts tell us to some extent genetics might have played a small role in developing this freak of nature…but more likely it was caused by an injury the deer sustained during the growing stage of the antlers.   Much like a rare clam that develops a coveted pearl, the non-typical deer is a real gem found occasionally in Minnesota’s woodlands.

I guess when deer make the news it usually means the deer did something unusual or spectacular to get noticed.   It also usually means the deer probably did not survive the situation that got them noticed.   Still, there’s nothing quite like a good deer story to put a smile on my face…especially after spending my two day hunting season this year without seeing a single deer.

© 2004 Jim Braaten. All Rights Reserved.   No Reproduction without Prior Permission.