March is a time of transition as winter releases its frigid hold and spring slowly embraces us with warmth and light. The change is gradual, but sure in its presence. An annual ritual of this passage is maple sugaring. Our family has sugared in Italy Valley for the past 25 years. During this time, the scope of our operation has changed, our workers have grown and aged, but the essence of the season has remained constant.
Sugaring is a spiritual time to work with the rhythm of nature and rediscover our rhythm of belief and perseverance. It begins early in mid January as the nuances of seasonal change are announced in bright birdsong and increasing degrees of daylight. The maples take on a new presence, casting themselves bright and expectant against the snow.
The sugar bush begins to call. It’s time to ramble about the woods assessing what we want to do this year. How many taps? More buckets, fewer buckets or more tubing? What other supplies are needed? Is there enough wood? Why didn’t I get it done before now?
In time, it all seems to get resolved. Before we know, the lines are repaired and tightened, buckets are ready and tanks are set. We watch the weather closely for rising and falling temperatures.
Suddenly it’s time to tap. A team of willing helpers makes lighter work as one drills tap holes, one hammers taps, and another hangs buckets and snaps the lids tightly. If we are lucky, the sap freshly runs when we drill a tree. Our lips kiss the rough bark as we sip the first trickle realizing it is spring again. The “ping” of sap dripping into a dry bucket is music to our ears and hearts.
Back in the sugarhouse it’s time for final preparations. The arch is leveled and fresh gaskets are set beneath the pan to hold the heat. Stainless steel pots and milk cans are scrubbed for the syrup’s storage. Loose items are gathered up and stored away. Never quite a polished place, our sugarhouse is definitely a sanctuary of welcome and wonder. The season’s powerful magic takes place here.
Sap collection is an exciting, strenuous activity. The sap is gathered by pails lugged and dumped, or suctioned by a pump into a truck’s transport tank. The weight on the arms as we carry it is tiring, and the ache is difficult to ignore. There always seems to be a bit more than I have room in my pail to carry. The sound of a sap bucket being poured is full of vigor and flourish. When the pails become empty and light in my arms, there is still more sap to be collected meaning another trip back and forth with full buckets.
But soon it’s off to the next collection spot. These trees have tubing and their sap flows into a gathering tank. Here a gasoline pump does the hard work, but our arms still have to convince the engine to fire. Soon our ears fill with its roar and its discharge hose swells with sap rushing to fill the transport tank. A full day’s run is quickly gathered.
Arriving back at the sugarhouse, the truck’s muffler smells sweet from the splashing of wet sap cooking on its hot surface, a reminder of the sap’s sugar. A reading is taken with a hydrometer to measure the sap’s sugar content. It tells the sweet worth of our haul and the predicted production of syrup to be finished. The sweeter the sap the less water is required to be evaporated to reach a syrup state. The less water to be evaporated means a lighter grade of syrup produced, so less fuel burned and less time spent boiling to produce it. The challenge of balancing a basic economic equation of input and output is certainly part of the sugaring process.
The sap is pumped again from the truck’s tank through a filter and into to the sugarhouse storage tank. From there it is gravity-fed into the evaporator constantly sending fresh sap into the back pan. To produce quality syrup you should collect and process the sap as quickly as possible. This requires a constant juggling of family dinners and activities as we schedule around the weather conditions that influence sap flow.
Most of our boiling is done during the evening and late night. Weekends provide an opportunity to enjoy the daylight coming through the open cupola vent. During both day and night, there’s a spectacular dance of billowing steam above the sugarhouse roof as the cold air chills the escaping spirits. Inside, the air is sweet and the evaporator is loudly active with its boiling fervor.
The change from sap to syrup is slow and gradual as the liquid finds its way across the evaporator’s back and front pans. Transformation is noted in color, taste and viscosity as the hot liquid is ladled, observed, and sipped. The surface bubbles change, the thermometer’s temperature rises, and soon the syrup hangs as a curtain across the scoop. Quickly, but carefully, a valve is opened and syrup flows from the front pan into a waiting vessel. Continued monitoring assures us that the valve is closed when the boiling temperature drops, signaling the end of a draw. From here the syrup is filtered into a larger holding drum to await a final “finishing” and filtering for canning to be graded, sold and enjoyed as table fare (or, my favorite, by the big spoonful).
This process repeats itself across the month of March without much predictability, but with lots of promise. The only constant is the hard work and the faithful rhythm of sap flowing as the temperatures rise and fall transitioning winter into spring.
You are welcome to visit our sugarhouse when you are “in the valley” and see the steam dancing in celebration of life’s renewal and hope.
by Malcolm MacKenzie