Mother Nature’s mood swings this winter have affected everything from plant and wild animal activity to disappointed hard water anglers who’ve been longing to get out onto the ice to fish. Because of an unusually warm winter, crocus and tulips began to sprout in early February and the four western Finger Lakes—Conesus, Hemlock, Canadice, and Honeoye—showed nothing but open water during the middle of last month when they should have been frozen over. A week later, after a couple of nights of below-zero temperatures, they finally were. But now that March is here, it’s questionable how safe that newly-formed ice really is or how much longer it will even last.
Compared to last winter, which was one of the coldest and snowiest on record, we’ve gotten off easy so far. I’ve only had to plow my driveway once and there is still plenty of firewood left in my woodshed. Except for one single snowstorm, this was not the winter to have purchased a snowmobile or even a pair of snowshoes for that matter. Neither would have gotten much use.
But looking on the bright side, sugar maple sap, which normally starts flowing between mid-February and mid-March in the Finger Lakes Region, began to flow almost three weeks earlier this year, sending tree-tappers into the woods before the end of January. Maple trees produce best under daily freeze-thaw conditions and whenever temperatures rise above freezing, the sap begins to flow. When it drops below freezing, which usually occurs at night, it slows. Rising temperatures generate pressure within the maple tree that causes sap to flow upward into the tree from the root system beneath the ground. The sap flows for about four to six weeks with the best quality syrup produced early in the season. This looks like it could be a banner year for maple syrup producers.
Colonists and early French explorers learned to tap maple trees from Native Americans who—lacking metal kettles in which to boil sap—let it freeze instead, removing the top layer of ice, which was nothing more than frozen water. Maple sap itself doesn’t freeze. By the late 18th century, it became customary to boil maple sap until most or all of the water evaporated, leaving either sweet-tasting maple syrup or a solid block of maple sugar that could then be granulated.
It wasn’t until the late 1800s when tapping trees and boiling sap to make syrup was turned into an industry by farmers looking to earn extra income during the slower winter months. Today, while most hobbyists still collect sap using metal buckets hanging from metal spouts tapped into trees, commercial producers employ a network of plastic tubing that gravity-feeds the sap through the woods to a centrally-located tank where it can be pumped into a vehicle for transportation to the sugar house. Technology and times may have changed but the end product is still the same. And how sweet it is!