By: Tom Lounsbury.
The full, silver-tinted moon recently beaming out of a cloudless night sky let me know it was going to be a real cold night. The following day’s temperature was predicted to reach the mid-forties, a perfect situation to trigger sap to begin flowing in maple trees. The month of March is typically the key timeframe to begin harvesting the sweet bounty of the woodlands known as maple syrup. Actually, it is a time-steeped process which goes back eons, beginning with Native Americans, who would boil the maple sap down to sugar form, which could be stored nearly indefinitely for future use.
One of my fondest memories as a teenager was working for a neighbor in his woods by gathering sap to make maple syrup. This began first with tapping maple trees with a hand-drill and hammering in metal spigots (aka taps) on which we hung special metal buckets which had lids to keep out moisture and debris. Some trees on the smaller side only required one tap, while bigger ones could handle more. There was a lot of snow that particular winter, and we had to do some serious wading during our first attempts to reach the trees, but eventually we established some notable trails from our continual foot-travel through the woods.
The trees, I would discover, had their individual character when it came to producing sap, which almost reminded me of dairy cows producing milk. Some were dependable sap producers, while others were on the moody side and only so-so one day, then doing double duty the next, and the dependable trees let me know it wasn’t just the weather. The weather, however, being variable as it can be at that time of year, did have a daily effect on all the trees, causing sap buckets to be not so full one day and then to the point of actually overflowing the next.
Other kids were working with me in gathering sap, and we each had a pair of five-gallon buckets to pour in the sap from each tree, and when they got to be on the heavy side, we headed to a large tank on wheels being towed by a tractor that was following a winding trail through the woods. This in turn was hauled to the “sugar shack” where my neighbor was tending the fire while boiling the sap down into maple syrup. It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup, so that represents a lot of painstaking boiling. The steam escaping from the roof openings of the sugar shack had a distinct earthy scent which created a very unique aroma wafting all about and announcing a sweet bounty being created during the bubbling process.
Maple sap is usually about 98 percent water and 2 percent sugar, and though it looks like water, it does possess a slightly sweet flavor. I also discovered when I tripped over a tree root and spilled the contents of a bucket all over me and soaking me to the skin, that it could be a bit sticky. I had to literally peel my clothes off after I completed my day, and getting wet in that environment was nothing new due to some perspiring work in the continually thawing snow. Besides all that, hard physical labor in a woodland environment has a natural way of keeping you warm.
Gathering maple sap in this fashion often has a lot to do with dealing with thawing snow, and as mentioned before, freezing nights with daytime temperatures in the 40’s is ideally required to start the sap flowing. Depending upon the weather, this can be an on again and off again experience. Usually, early March represents the typical starting timeframe, but the previous three winters here in the Thumb, had everything happening by mid-February. It is clearly in the hands of Mother Nature, and a touchy part about all this is to accomplish gathering the sap before maple trees begin their natural transition of forming buds, because when this happens the sap becomes cloudy and not as plentiful or flavorful as before. Typically, everything is finished by April, but in some years, it can end much sooner.
Bob Walker of Kingston has been learning all of this during the last six years in his woods. On the first year of making maple syrup, he boiled sap in the open air, but the following year he constructed a sugar shack, where he and his wife Darlene and their two sons and their families all pitch in. Making maple syrup has become a seasonal family affair for all three generations which they clearly enjoy and look forward to.
The maple syrup they create together is strictly for their own use and matters are kept on a small scale. They maintain 50 taps on about three dozen trees which are in close proximity to the sugar shack in order to keep the effort of gathering sap to a minimum, and these specific trees have proven to be dependable producers to meet their needs. Their woods certainly contains a lot more maple trees which could also be tapped, but the Walker family clan is quite happy to keep matters in a more simple and laidback nature they all truly appreciate. It however, still requires a lot of hard work, but is clearly a labor of love on their part and involving family teamwork.
It was 3 years ago when I first decided to pay the Walkers a visit at their sugar shack and to get a grasp of how they do matters. I have a number of maple trees which I had planted over 40 years ago along my driveway, as well as in my backyard, and they have achieved a size now (the tree needs to have at least a 10 inch diameter before it can be tapped) where I can tap them and start the process of making my own maple syrup, something which I have been contemplating.
As I meandered through the woods using the smoke rising up out of the sugar shack’s chimney to keep my bearings, I was greeted with that distinctly pleasant aroma of boiling maple sap steam blending in with wood smoke, which automatically brought back wonderful memories of gathering maple sap in my youth.
I was hearing a whacking and thumping sound as I neared the Walker sugar shack and soon spotted a then 14 year old Hugh Walker of Cass City using a splitting maul to downsize large chunks of ash to properly feed the fire, which can be a hungry beast in order to keep things as hot as they should be. Hugh’s father, Ryan Walker of Cass City, was inside the shack helping “Grandpa Bob” tend to matters while the sap boiled in two large steaming pans on top of a big iron wood-stove. One pan was for the actual boiling, while the other pan was for adding fresh sap and heating it up before adding it to the actual boiling pan. As Bob explained, only using one pan can become a more lengthy process because adding fresh sap cools and slows matters, and the boiling process has to start all over again.
The final process is transferring the boiled sap which has become the right color and texture to a large pot on a single burner gas stove, where it is poured into the pot through a strainer to remove any possible debris. Then the boiling down is completed with a close eye kept on the temperature, with 219 degrees F being key when using a thermometer. Bob also uses a spoon, that when the syrup clings to it and drips off just right, it is completed, and care then must be taken during this final process so as not to burn the syrup, which would ruin matters.
Off to the side of the sugar shack was the all important sap barrel, which had formerly been a 40 gallon, plastic water drum with a spigot at the bottom. When full of sap, it would represent one gallon of syrup. The contents of this would be strained through some mesh into a bucket during the transfer of sap to the boiling pans.
Ryan’s other two children, daughter Claire and son Oliver, soon arrived with their grandmother Darlene to help gather sap from nearby trees. The Walkers use heavy vinyl “wine bags” for hanging on the taps, because they are durable and can hold a lot of sap. The contents of these are poured into buckets which when full, are hauled to the sugar shack close by and dumped into the sap barrel, a very simple and handy process.
The end result, hopefully, according to the whims of Mother Nature, is to harvest enough maple syrup to cover the needs of three families for a year. And there is little doubt that nothing is sweeter than maple syrup gathered and processed by a family in their own woods.