After a long, cold winter, everyone always looks forward to the time when the nights are still crisp; but, as daylight breaks, it’s as though you can hear nature’s blessings come to life as the warm air begins to revive all the sleeping growth. For some people, this season isn’t just another enjoyable time of year; it’s a season that has been part of many generations. This season comes between winter and spring. By now, you must be thinking I’m nuts because there are only four seasons a year and there is no such thing; however, there is and this wonderful time of year is called “maple season.” For the experienced maple producer, this time of year represents an income keeping them busy year-round. For most, called hobbyists, the season is only approximately two months of the year usually beginning in February and ending in March.
The season begins when winter slowly releases its grip allowing the days to reach temperatures above freezing only to fall prey to winter’s hold again during the nighttime freezing air. The seasoned producer knows the time is coming not by expensive meteorological equipment and daily weather reports, but simply by the feeling in the air. When the air is right, it’s time for them to start tapping the trees. The maple season has begun.
The hobbyists begin in the woods tapping the trees they diligently mapped out weeks earlier in preparation for the season. First step is to carefully drill a small hole in the tree and then pound in the tap. If it’s done at the right time and the tree is hit just right, the sap will often splash you in the face as the mallet strikes the spile driver. I can only compare this experience with that of the Peppermint Patty candy commercial. The cool splash of sap caressing my face is like that of the cool breeze one feels when one bites into that York patty. Once the tap is successfully inserted, a bucket is hung to accumulate the sap dripping from the spout one drop at a time. The bucket is then topped off with a lid to protect the valuable sap from rain, debris, and snow.
Each day, the sap slowly flows from the trees, is collected, and stored. After enough is gathered, it is time for a boil-down, where you cook all the sap over a heat-source to evaporate most of the water in order to reduce the sap into syrup. The ratio of sap to syrup is an astounding 40 gallons to 1. I believe the boil-down is the most rewarding process as you see all your hard work come to fruition. In my case, boil-down days also represent a time for everyone to come together and enjoy nature beginning before daybreak and sometimes lasting well into the night.
I am fortunate enough to complete the boil-down in my own log cabin sugar shack. I pour the filtered sap into the pan then build the wood fire in the stove of the evaporator to bring it up to temperature. Before long, the warm steam is billowing out of the shack’s roof as if to hang the welcoming sign and almost instinctively, friends and family being to congregate. Everyone has a story to tell, a memory to share, and good strong hands capable of keeping the fire going strong. I’m usually filled with a warm fuzzy feeling all over as I absorb every minute of the day.
After a long, exhausting, but exhilarating day comes to an end, it’s time to pour the syrup into a finishing pan and head to the house. Again, because the ration is so extreme, the evaporator pan is too large to complete the process. The jars are prepared and the boil is finished when the hydrometer bobs at the magic density reading of 66. It is time to pour the liquid gold into the bottles. The best part of all is the Sunday morning breakfast. Like the flowers bring validation to the spring season, maple syrup brings validation to maple season.