Monday, March 12, 2012

The Maple Sugar Season--A Nostalgic Look

Sugaring gets in your blood. When the first thaws of spring arrive, it’s time to get out in the woods and start making maple syrup. After being cooped up all winter, the outdoors and the sometimes heavy exercise of the sugar operation are most welcome.

I sugared for many years in Cleveland, and that is the activity and time of the year that I now miss most living in Taiwan. Looking at nineteenth-century and other early sugaring photographs, I can temporarily trade my all-too-real wool gathering for some imaginary sap gathering.

Everything needed to get started—a sugar house with a ventilator on top, a covered woodpile, early spring weather with some leftover rags of snow, and a ready crew.

These willing workers from Sutton, Quebec are standing by with their sap buckets. Notice that the woman on the end is a giant—literally head and shoulders above the rest!

 The sugaring process is very straightforward in essence. Maple syrup is simply the watery sap of the maple tree boiled down, nothing added except heat. To tap the trees, a small hole is drilled in the trunk of the tree, and a metal tube called a spile is inserted. A bucket is hung on the spile to collect the dripping sap.

William Augustus Balliet (1828-1918) from Woodcock Township, Pennsylvania, demonstrates his tapping technique.

The sap is laboriously gathered by carrying the full buckets through the spring woods. Because the trees are usually some distance from the sugar house, intermediate gathering tanks are employed. In the past these were placed on sledges and drawn by horses. The inverted-cone shape helped prevent sloshing when dragged over the uneven ground.

Murray C. Benjamin of Utica, New York checking a sap bucket. What sugaring stories this old-timer could tell.

Children love to help, but this one is bundled up so tightly I doubt he can move much.

The sap ultimately ends up at the sugar house. At first thin and watery, it is boiled down in large flat pans placed over the roaring fire of the evaporator, until the familiar syrup emerges. With a water-to-sugar ratio of roughly 35 to 1, so much steam is driven off that sugar houses are built with large ventilators on top for the steam to escape. These plumes of steam, visible for a considerable distance, are the surest sign that the season is underway.

Ready for a big season with plenty of wood, all cut by the Mr. Benjamin mentioned above. Clouds of steam show that the evaporator is already at work.

Oxen instead of horses, a better roof to protect the woodpile, and a clear view of the top ventilator before the evaporator has started.

These huge iron kettles, not to mention the old-fashioned costumes, were already archaic when this photo was taken. A romantic recreation of Colonial-era sugaring techniques.

In addition to processing the sugar, the maple season is a wonderful time to be out in the woods. In the early spring, everything is just beginning. The buds on the trees and the earliest spring flowers such as coltsfoot are starting to make an appearance. Small creeks run swiftly with melted snows, and one hears the sound of flowing and dripping water everywhere. The odor of the spring woods in unforgettable: sweet, fresh, rank and damp all at the same time. The maple-laden steam from the sugar house adds to this, and when one steps inside, the sweet fragrance is mingled with the sharp smoke and odors of burning wood.

With all the beauty, health and fun that the sugaring season has to offer, the bonus of the maple syrup itself seems almost superfluous. However, each drop of syrup that you have made yourself is imbued with the happy spirit of that all-too-brief time when the sap flows and fleeting opportunity gives a direction to your outdoor activities.

With no leaves or ground cover as yet, one can appreciate the undulating contours of the ground in the Spring woods.

All photographs from my collection.