Sap Season

Maple sugaring has started here in the north country. It’s an odd process, if you think about it. For a handful of weeks that usually starts in late February and ends before taxes are due, people collect water from trees and cook it. Drive any road, and you’re likely to see farmers walking their sap lines, trucks carrying tanks full of sap to be boiled down for syrup, and steam billowing from sugar shacks around the clock.

It all begins when the sap starts to run — that is, when the nutrient-rich liquid travels up from the roots of the maple sugar tree, following pathways behind the bark of the tree. This happens when the temperature rises above freezing. The best sugaring conditions, though, require a set of opposites: warm, sunny days, to make the sap run well; and nights below freezing, to keep it sweet.

A couple of years ago, we decided to join the fun. Our “sugarbush” is pretty small for a sugaring operation — just six trees along our road. We bought old-fashioned metal buckets with the peaked-roof lids and a dozen taps. Last weekend, Ursula and Virgil walked the trees with Jim. They stopped before each tree and took turns cranking a hand drill with a 5/16-inch drill bit through the warm bark. In went a metal tap, and within seconds, sap dripped out the end of the spout.

We don’t keep track of how much sap we collect. It might be as much as 40 gallons. If we boiled that amount down for syrup, we’d get about one gallon of syrup. But we don’t bother with a boiling operation. We’re happy to support our local maple syrup producers. What’s priceless is sap, which you can’t buy in any store.

So we drink sap water. We lift out frozen disks of skim ice when we check the buckets in the morning and drink the extra-sweet water straight from the buckets. We boil it for sweet tea. We send it in with the kids’ lunches. (A neighbor of ours boils hot dogs in sap and considers it one of life’s delicacies, but she’s from Ohio.) Sap keeps for only a day or two before it turns.

Maple-sugaring time is equally brief, a moment of balance between the end of winter and the beginning of spring. Sap, the clear ambrosia that arrives when everything else turns muddy, is a sweet distillation of a short, sweet season.

Learn more

"How Sweet It Is: Making Your Own Maple Syrup" (AMC Outdoors, January/February 2007)

Photo: Eva tasting the promise of spring. Photo by Tiffany Calcutt.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

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