Sugar, Sugar: The Maple Moment

Something I discovered the very first year our family moved to Vermont: winters here are loooong. How do people cope, I thought? The obvious answer, if (a) you do not follow college hockey and (b) you are not an avid downhill skier – tap your trees and make maple syrup! Seemed to work for a lot of people I knew, so we got started.

A few things you should know right away to appreciate the maple hobby. First, the sugaring season around here typically starts around the end of February and can run through mid-April. Usually, the sap will run when the temperature is below freezing at night and above freezing during the day. This means that, around the time everyone else has had it with winter and is considering moving to New Jersey, you can avoid that fate by anticipating the maple season. When everyone else is bummed that we aren’t enjoying 60 degree days, you look forward to the freezing nights and tomorrow’s abundance of sap!

Second, to get the sap, it is often necessary to go into the woods. At a time when you would usually be huddling by the fire looking a catalogues for Caribbean vacations, you instead put on your boots and abundant outdoor gear and start tapping your trees. If you have buckets to catch the sap, you have to go out whenever there is a run to collect the sap; if you have tubes, you have to go out to see which lines have been chewed to pieces by squirrels. The point is you have to go into the woods at a time when you’d never muster the enthusiasm to do so, and you’re always happier when you do. Also, you get to watch the woods come to life as the season goes by – snow melting, shoots coming up, buds appearing on the trees, creatures venturing out from semi-hibernation to eat your lines…

Third, the sap that comes out of the trees has to be boiled down for quite some time to make syrup: 40 – 50 gallons of sap must be boiled down to make a gallon of maple syrup. So you are going to be spending time you would otherwise spend moping fully engaged in collecting, boiling, filtering and canning the glorious liquid. The smell and comfort of the outdoor fire, the exquisite aroma of the boiling sap, the science project of determining when the syrup is finally ready – a worthwhile way to spend a winter night.

Fourth, the project of making maple syrup can be quite labor intensive. Friends will come to help you, maybe bringing food or sharing some you’ve ordered in. You gather together in the small sugarhouse, keeping the fire going, frequently tasting the amber liquid to see if it is syrup yet. Each boil thus becomes an occasion for a communal gathering, a small celebration of the approaching spring. And no need for dessert – just taste the thickening sap a few times and you’ll have the obligatory sugar high.

And if let yourself drift in the direction of pure pagan wonder - really, this celebration is about the return of the life force, the rush of sap from the trees, the miracle of yearly renewal. And the sap is delicious.

Our own sugaring operation has evolved over the years - from tapping a few trees and boiling sap down on the stove, to having 60 buckets, and schlepping 50 pounds of sap at a time around my yard, to be boiled on my small outdoor evaporator for roughly forever. Something had to change, and I chose to go all out!

First, I planned to get a larger evaporator, one that could handle more sap at a time, boil it 5 times faster, and let me make syrup in one night. I’d need more sap, so I now have 200 taps. I couldn’t collect it all by hand, so I collect the sap with tubes that drain into a large tank near my evaporator. I noticed that people who used a vacuum pump with their tubes had a far better season than those without, so we found an old vacuum pump and installed it. And finally, I needed a real sugarhouse for all this stuff = bigger evaporator, concrete floor, larger tank, wood at the ready. My little hobby was becoming a bit of a fixation, egged on by Pat Hendee, the CGC caretaker and fellow maple enthusiast.

I eagerly awaited the start of the season and the delivery of my new rig. When it finally arrived, I was horror-stricken, exhilarated and overwhelmed. Instead of my simple little evaporator, with all it’s homemade quirks, I now had a real machine, enormous, industrial strength. I was a maple craftsperson being turned into an unskilled laborer. I felt like Charlie Chaplin in ModernTimes. I'd entered the industrial age, only I was both capital and labor and was alienating myself. What would Marx think? 

Okay, settle yourself. Call Pat, who was the enthusiastic mastermind of the project Get Jon Seeley, who had built the sugarhouse and understands science. Find Johnny Walker!

We fired up the machine, stoked the flames, watched the sap drip in automatically to fill the pan, argued fine points of fire and weather, and I made a gallon of syrup after 8 long hours. But by then I had “sweetened the pan” – once I drew off the syrup, “almost syrup” was next in line in the evaporator, only an hour’s boiling away. It was easier than I thought, something I could manage myself. It still required skill. And I made a lot of syrup quickly, enough for me and all the friends I could hope to have!

A side benefit of the new rig – I’ve grown up as a sugarmaker. Now instead of just comparing notes with the other backyard sugarers, I can discuss the fine points of sugaring with a wide array of people who have also gone off the maple syrup deep end. Rick the electrician has 1000 taps and sugars with friends; Carol Kent’s husband Bernie has a rig just like mine; Starksboro’s town clerk Cheryl Estey sugars as well. I am a real Vermonter now and I don’t even have to like hockey! Life is sweet – and maple flavored.

                                                                                            - Peg