March 2, 2013

North Cairn: As winter loosens grip, sap flows

You take your breaks from the blizzards wherever you can find them, especially in clear sap running from a sugar maple.

Last week, when the snow stopped long enough to allow, off and on, about 36 hours of sunshine, my neighbor and a buddy of his hauled out 5-gallon plastic buckets, tubing and taps for their annual maple syrup operations, and got down to business. Installing taps was set to take place around lunchtime, so my neighbor called that morning to see if I could slip away to learn the tricks of this particularly sweet, low-cost, light-labor trade.

I'm always up for an activity that gets me into fresh air with good company, so I tagged along for the outing. These guys, who spend most of the year as painting contractors, run a sort of goodwill operation, tiny by comparison to commercial ventures. But the 5 gallons they get and give away each year goes a long way toward winning favor from clients whose homes or halls they've painted, and there's always enough left for them, their families and friends, so they've made a tradition out of maple sugaring each winter toward the end of February.

We stayed close to home, within a 15-minute drive of our edge of town. Our trio convened at the property on which the equipment was stored and a few old, old giant maple trees were waiting to be tapped. Weather conditions were perfect: relative warmth following a few good days of cold.

The tapping we did was my favorite kind of homemade-production operation -- low-key, fun and geared to the intelligence attained by an 8-year-old -- just about my speed.

At one point, my neighbor and I were talking "xylem" and "phloem," but only in that offhand manner that acknowledges that it's been a lot of years since college and any memory of even rudimentary botany.

I believe he was trying to explain what actually happens inside the tree -- how maple trees in the fall stop growing and begin storing excess starches throughout their sapwood. It remains there as long as the temperature holds below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, about the temperature at which the starch turns into sugar, largely sucrose, and then passes into sap.

At about 45 degrees, sugar is no longer produced, and in March and April generally, the sugar changes back into starch. So there is this relatively brief window of opportunity -- warm enough to get the clear-as-water sap flowing and cool enough for sugary sap production -- for getting buckets and tubing, taps and temperments ready for the whole experience.

I noticed it takes a lot of standing around for an onlooker to participate, though the guys did let me drill a couple of holes (not too deep, on a slight upward angle); and I toted some of the empty buckets from one place on the snow-covered lawn to another (though I am unclear about whether that had any effect on the process). We had some lackadaisical conversations about whether the buckets were sterile enough for sugaring, but it was all in jest -- we knew some of that mud just had to be cleaned out.

I was happy all the while, the smell of clean fresh air all around, plans for the future hanging in buckets if not on air (we still had to boil down whatever sap we got), moving around outdoors during midwinter in serviceable, worn flannel old clothes and approximate schedules. These are some of the best parts of living in the woods, even with the vagaries of weather and seasonal finances looming like storm fronts on the near horizon.

An impending snowstorm was the last thing on our minds, but we got around to it eventually, tossing out anticipated snowfall depths in inches like rash poker bets.

"I heard eight to 18," I said. "But what can that kind of range even mean?"

"No, four to six," one of the guys said.

"Eight to 12," the other countered.

Six to 10 seemed optimistic and realistic both, so I settled on that, though the blue, cloud-laced sky seemed too friendly to deliver that kind of blow again so soon after the last blast. We stowed away the few unused buckets that might still be put to work somewhere else, some other time -- precision in planning being the name of the game. We coiled the extra tubing like a garden hose, fitted it into a bucket, tossed in the unused taps and climbed into our vehicles.

All in all, a little over an hour -- a very reasonable investment for the expected return.

The next step, I understand, comes with collecting and boiling off the 90 percent water to produce syrup. It takes some time, my neighbor tells me, especially on the brick stove that looks like a moonshiner's contraption that he's jerry-rigged in his yard. But it gives him time to read a book and listen to, get this, his transistor radio, while lounging beneath the trees.

It might represent a throwback to some iPad/iPod people, but that kind of labor sounds like the perfect job to me.

I'll be back over to see him in a couple of weeks. Wouldn't want to leave that last part of the task unfinished. Besides, someone has to be on hand to test the final product. I'll bring bacon, eggs and pancake mix. The trees can provide the rest.

North Cairn can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

ncairn@pressherald.com

 

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