Andrew and Sam Theriault make maple cotton candy at the Red Door Sugar Shack in Topsham on Maine Maple Sunday. (Nathan Strout / The Times Record)

TOPSHAM — Folks from all over the state took part in Maine Maple Sunday, a tradition that sees Mainers leave their comfortable homes in search of the small wooden sugar shacks where maple syrup is made.

For some, Maine Maple Sunday is an excuse to go out and sample some sweet treats, like maple cotton candy or ice cream dripping with maple syrup. Celebrated on the fourth Sunday of March, the annual holiday marks the end of another long, dreary Maine winter.

“For me it means spring,” said Karin Paquin, a junior high teacher in Brunswick.

Paquin was out at the sugar shack Sunday with her husband Jason and son 3-year-old Camden, who was pushing a toy bulldozer through the puddles and thick mud that had formed from the melting snow.

3-year-old Camden Paquin plays with a toy bulldozer after visiting the Red Door Sugar Shack in Topsham. (Nathan Strout / The Times Record)

“Honestly, we love maple syrup and just to get out and support the local farm that’s making a great Maine product,” said Jason Paquin. “Getting our son exposed to different avenues of how things are created and made.”

And at the Red Door Sugar Shack in Topsham, the Paquins and hundreds of other Mainers got a look at how maple syrup is made. In the sugar shack, visitors could get up close to the large evaporator used to boil the sap. Most of the water is evaporated away over a long period of time, leaving behind the deep brown, sugary liquid. It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.

The Red Door Sugar Shack operates 1,800 tree taps. Last year they produced 60 gallons of syrup from those taps.

According to a report released by the United States Department of Agriculture, Maine ranked third among states in total maple syrup production, behind New York and Vermont. The state produced 539,000 gallons of syrup in 2018, down from 709,000 gallons in 2017 and 675,000 gallons in 2016.

According to Roy Wallace, who was manning the evaporator, 2019 could be another disappointing season for Maine maple syrup producers.

“It’s terrible,” said Wallace, who everyone at the sugar shack referred to as simply gramps. “(The sap) just started running.”

The maple syrup season is wildly unpredictable, and depends heavily on when the sap starts flowing and how long it flows for. Sap doesn’t begin to flow until temperatures reach about 45 degrees, meaning that a prolonged winter can delay the season. And according to Wallace, sap can flow for a few days to several weeks.

Four-year-old Everett Griffin is lifted up for a closer look at the evaporator. (Nathan Strout / The Times Record)

Andrew Thibeault, who runs the Red Door Sugar Shack, added that they only actually started boiling sap on Maine Maple Sunday.

Thibeault has been making maple syrup for 11 years now — 9 of them at Red Door Sugar Shack. He started out boiling sap in a turkey fryer before moving on to a small evaporator he built out of an oil drum that could boil 30 gallons.

“It took me a long time. I’d get home from work, I’d start it and I’d be there till 11 at night,” Thibeault recalled. “On the weekends I’d get up at four in the morning. I’d go there and spend all day boiling. Some I’d stay all night, boiling right through the night to make it.”

His production has only grown since then. He has a full-sized evaporator in his sugar shack now. Last year, he picked up the sugar shack, hauled it a mile up the road to his home in Topsham, and set it there permanently. The main reason for the move was safety. Thibeault — a firefighter in Topsham — was concerned that the wooden sugar shack could catch fire, and he wanted to be sure that he would see it quickly and take care of it quickly. With operations fueled by a wood fire in a pine structure, a fire is a distinct possibility.

Hundreds of people visited the Red Door Sugar Shack in Topsham on Maine Maple Sunday. (Nathan Strout / The Times Record)

In December, Thibeault expanded his operation with an addition that was far larger than the original sugar shack. The new addition now houses the evaporator with plenty of room for a small crowd to gather and watch the process. The main sugar shack — the one Thibeault hauled up the road last year — has a register and counter where visitors can buy maple syrup, maple candies, maple cotton candy and more.

Last year, 800 people visited the Red Door Sugar Shack during the weekend of Maine Maple Sunday. By noon on Sunday, Thibeault said they had likely already passed that.

“My mother tries to keep track, but there’s just too many people,” he said.

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