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.