Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Sugarbush Season

I've taken a break from writing fiction and decided it's time to write some more non-fiction. It's time to dive back into some photography, and while this isn't Pulitzer stuff, I thought I'd go back to blogging a bit about some local culture that I'm re-experiencing for the first time in years.

My family is fortunate to have a good bit of land left from when our homesteading pioneer ancestors settled our little backwoods community. Over the generations we've been a jack-of-all-trades family: lumbermen, sawmill operators, dairy farmers, game-keepers, conservation and fire wardens, well-diggers, plumbers, carpenters, electricians, bookkeepers, hairdressers, school teachers, librarians, and whatever else it took to keep this little family running. Anyway, one of the things that comes with the territory - especially territory that has a nice stand of old-growth maple forest on it - is collecting sap for maple syrup in the spring.

My uncle was inspired to build a sugar shack and design a real sap pan, so when I was in grade school and middle school we had a passel of kids, aunts and uncles to collect the sap from each tree, a grandfather who loved nothing more than to sit for hours in the woods on a fine day and into the night tending the fire, and a grandmother who loved nothing more than delivering thermoses of hot chocolate and coffee and stuffing the all the hard workers with as many cookies as they could eat. Then we tapped a hundred trees and collected untold gallons of sap. We boiled and boiled and boiled and then had a big family canning party where we finished the syrup and canned quart after quart of the stuff. Our first computers printed labels proudly proclaiming the name of the long defunct family dairy and the classes came from school to tour our operations.

Now the passel of kids has grown and departed, the grandparents are no longer there to mind the fires and the cookies, and the aunts and uncles are retired and too tired to face such a big project. My sister has gamely continued tapping a few trees each year and boiling down enough sap to get a pint or two of syrup. This year, I've taken up the torch of family tradition, and I am (thus far) whole-heartedly enjoying it.

We have lots of snapshots of us running around spilling buckets as kids, but this year I wanted to get some digital pictures that document the process somewhat more rigorously. So I thought I would share a few of them here. I'm going to take some more time over the next few days while I'm tending the fires to get some more.

Our woods, barn in the field (used to have animals, now sadly abandoned), sap house is barely visible to the right of the barn in the forest. Opening the sap house for the first time this season...time to evict the mice...
The sap house (traditionally called "sugar shack").
Inside: the big black thing in the middle is the old sap pan over the old fire box - I think it holds nearly 30 gallons or something. Much, much too big for what I'll be able to manage on my own, not to mention how much wood I'll be able to chop. Yes, that is a deer head on the wall. Our family doesn't generally hunt, so I have no idea where that came from, but I suppose it's pretty much a mandatory decoration.
Sarah making her mean pirate face. We found this piece of pirate macheté work lying around - it may have belonged to Sam Campbell, and it's very, very sharp.

The actual process of tapping trees and collecting sap is really quite simple. First you drill a hole:
Then you put a tap into the hole:
Catch that drop!
Then you hang a bucket or a bag on the tap:
video
We used to use coffee cans, back when coffee cans were plentiful, but they filled up too fast and got full of tree bark and other junk, rusted and were really hard to store. Then we moved to old gallon milk jugs. But we discovered these bags with can hold a lot of sap and keep it much, much cleaner and are reuseable for many years. Some fancy operations even use a network of tubing that connects all the trees and delivers the sap right to a big storage bin, but we never perfected that. We also have a huge metal reservoir, but we haven't used it in years.

So we walk from tree to tree, collecting the sap into a bucket. Today we have a 40 gallon plastic storage tank, which seems like a lot, but when it takes 40 gallons of sap to boil down into one gallon of syrup, it's hardly a cash production line.

This year we're using the small wood stove at the back of the sap house to boil down the sap. You have to keep it well-stoked, so I'm spending a lot of hours just sitting in the woods baby-sitting the stove. As the sap boils off I just keep adding more and more to the 1 1/2 gallon pan on the top of the stove. This weekend I took the first batch of half-boiled sap off: about 4 quarts total.

I'll keep boiling until I get at least a couple of gallons of half-reduced liquid, then we'll take it up to the house to start the finishing process. We used to be really high tech about this, but some of our equipment has gone missing over the last couple of years, so we may have to be a little more creative (or at least less scientific and precise) about the whole thing. I'll write more about that as we get to that point.

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