Every year, near the end of Winter, when most people are still shut up tight in their homes waiting for the snows to melt and for some color to emerge from the landscape, we spend our days deep in the sugarbush tapping maples. The job itself is tiresome; snowshoeing through the accumulated drifts that rarely see the light of the sun and drilling holes into the bark of thousands of rock maple trees on the southern flank of the mountain, carrying your tools and supplies with you as you go. We use tubing rather than the old style bucket and spile familiar to most people, not because it is archaic, but because it is next to impossible to manage three thousand buckets over seventy acres with only the labor of our family. Each run of tubing follows the contours of the land, the mainlines running in the draws where Spring thaws create runoffs between massive erratics- boulders the size of small houses. Between these ravines the majority of the maples grow, climbing the mountainside in profusion, their roots wrapped around glacial moraine like fists. Smaller lines, laterals that carry the sap from each tap run taut towards secondary 1/2″ tubing that eventually joins the mainlines, each drop adding to another until it reaches the collection points.
At first, in early February, when you drill the hole nothing comes out but shavings. Later, as the weather warms and the sun touches the bark, as soon as the bit emerges from the cambium clear drops of sweet sap begin to pour from the hole. You place the tap into the hole, attached to a “drop”, or length of tubing fastened to the tree like a collar six to eight feet above the forest floor depending on the snow that year. When it come time to remove the taps when Spring is in full bloom we carry a piece of ladder with us so we can reach the taps, now out of reach of human hands. The entire tapping process is carried out over a period of two or three weeks depending on how much help you get, but it is, for the most part, a very solitary process. You can hear the sound of another drill out of sight and the soft tap-tap-tap of a hammer driving a spile into place somewhere out of sight and know that you are not alone, but until the light starts to dim in the western sky and you head back in to the house, you are on your own.
During these times you begin to notice the subtle changes between Winter and Spring. The snow is covered with tracks; bobcat, mink, snowshoe hare, moose and coyote. Occasionally as has happened to me, you will find evidence of bear coming out of hibernation, sections of sap lines ripped from the trees, fang holes through the plastic where it has discovered a sweet snack early in the season. There are the sounds of birds, owls and hawks mostly calling back and forth to each other, but migrating birds too, warblers, flycatchers and the occasional thrush. It’s hard not to pause between runs and simply stand there in awe. The incipient buds developing on the birch, the pale pink at the tips of the black maples, the wide brush of deep green where the hemlocks stand. It is this part of the year that virtually no one gets to experience, this glimpse of the rebirth of everything that makes tapping out so rewarding.
Last week a couple of young men- successful thirty-somethings who wanted to experience sugaring first hand- came up to the farm to volunteer for the day. One was an orthopedic specialist, the other a project manager for an industrial contracting firm, both longtime friends who lived in a large urban area in the Northeast. I gave them a half hour of instruction and a set of tools and supplies and after sharing some warm maple syrup and tea, we headed out to the orchard. For a while I worked with them, close enough to QC their efforts. Both men were proficient with tools and physically fit for the task. They had been to our farm in the past, to buy grass fed beef for their paleo diets and once to shoot targets on our range. As an open farm we get lots of visitors, many whom we never see again, but even more who over time become friends to our family and who take pride in working with us on whatever we happen to be doing at any given time during the year whether slaughtering chickens in June or sugaring in March.
After a while they moved out on separate traces, up the mountainside one tree at a time, repairing lines and tapping trees. We worked that way for six or seven hours, stopping on occasion to straighten out a confusing section where branches had taken down lines or to eat our sandwiches, but working slow and steady until dusk. As we made our way back out of the sugarbush they talked about how much they wished they had the same kind of office to work in as I did and I tried to let them know that as beautiful as it was there were days when they probably would be grateful for the climate controlled digs they called home. I held up my broken arm still in a splint to drive the point home. before they left I packed them each a box of steaks and bacon and a bottle of last years grade A dark amber syrup. We shook hands and said our goodbyes and I told them to stop by again when we would be boiling the sap in the sugarhouse and they said they’d try and get up.
This year isn’t looking to be very good for production. Here we are almost at the end of March and the temperatures are still in the 20′s during the day and below zero at night. The last time tapping out was this late in the year was 1953 according to the penciled notes on the sugarhouse wall and as of this morning we haven’t got more than 500 gallons of sap. By the time it goes through the reverse osmosis filter we’ll only have 300 gallons of concentrated sap on hand, 700 gallons short of what we need to fire up the evaporator. Next week looks like it might be good with temperatures in the 40s during the day, enough to let the sap really flow, and freezing at night, a requirement for the flow to continue.
After five days of that the weather looks to get much warmer and judging by the bud development on the trees that will be all it will take to slam the lid on another season. For a family that depends on maple syrup for enough income to pay property taxes and a little left over for expenses, a short season is a let down. But as my daughter is fond of saying, ‘you get what you get and you don’t get upset’ and I agree with her. Some years are good years, some not so much, but on average doing this is worth the effort. Doing anything else would be a let down.
So now we wait; for the run to start, for the sap to flow into the sugarhouse and for the syrup to come off the pan in a room filled with sweet, warm steam, redolent of the scent of sugar and wood smoke. We’ll wait for the bottling of the varied colored grades, from pale yellow fancy of the first run to the blood red grade B dark amber at the end of the season, for the clean-up that follows and for the Spring that will turn this mountainside blue green with life once again. I hope that fifty years from now that our sugarbush is twice as productive as we have made it so far, so that my grandchildren will be able to snowshoe across the same ravines under soaring columns of rock maple and white ash, carrying their tools and supplies in the same bag I use now, hoping for a sweet harvest long before any crop has been planted anywhere else.