On Tuesday in the woods I had a fire burning with plenty of storm-felled maple and red pine to keep a good flame. Surrounding me were 55 tapped trees that within a week or so will account for close to 400 gallons of sap, the upper limit of our down-home sugarbush operation. Sandhill cranes were aloft high overhead against a cobalt sky, pushing the snow line north, and Canada geese arrowed over the St. Croix River.
You couldn’t argue with the weather. The temperature hovered on either side of 50, and I was in shirtsleeves. A friend, Mike Tate, would stop by later to help burn the waste wood, and in the evening another friend would arrive for the day’s maple-sap gathering. Otherwise I was alone with the fire and the tapped trees and the cranes and the geese.
Tapping trees the traditional way with sap flowing into buckets or bags suits me. Like anyone who has ever lit a fire beneath an evaporator, I’m aware of efficiencies gained by the application of vast reptilian vacuum systems and their enabling miles of blue plastic tubing. Minnesota’s largest syruping operations punch holes in 20,000 trees and deploy monitoring screens and wireless keyboards to suck sap into sugar shacks like oil moving through pipelines. Vintage knucklehead Harleys spellbind me in ways contortion-inducing crotch rockets don’t, and for this reason and others I prefer the old, slow way of gathering sap.
In days past when our boys were young they careened through the woods on our four-wheeler gathering sap into a 35-gallon tank. The tank was strapped to the back of the four-wheeler, creating as it filled a sloshing effect that had to be counterweighed by the operator. In a season’s early days the forest floor was frozen. But as March gave way to April the ground softened and mud prevailed, creating for the boys the same sporting opportunities celebrated monthly by 4Wheel & Off-Road magazine.
“I’ll boil at my house this year, it’ll just be easier,’’ John Weyrauch said.
John, a Stillwater barrister, is the chief cook and bottle washer of our two-bit operation, also the spiritual leader and confessed impulse buyer of A-to-Z syruping gadgetry.
Shopping sprees to Morley’s in Luck, Wis., or another supplier can in a moment’s notice yield carts full of funnels, bags, bag hangars, drills, drill bits, filters, hydrometers and, of course, bottles. It’s a cult, maple syruping, and the hazings are self-administered, usually by credit card.
In this part of the world the Ojibwe were the original stalwarts of the spring syruping season. During the Moon of the Boiling Sap, or iskigamizige-giizis, they left their winter homes for sugar camps surrounded by maple forests. Modern taps are metal, but the Ojibwe’s were carved of wood, and below them swinging from the maples were birch bark sap baskets, or biskitenaagan.
The plan this year with John boiling at his place required intricate strategizing otherwise practiced only by celebrated military commanders, among them the empire-crushing Cyrus the Great and before him Hannibal and his crossing of the Alps with elephants during the Second Punic War.
“If we collect sap at my place and boil it at your place, where will you get the wood to burn?’’
I tossed this question to John via text, which is how all important questions are asked these days.
Moments later materializing from the ether came his reply.
“From Terry,’’ John said.
The third leg of our wobbly syrup-making stool, Terry Arnesen is a Stillwater-area horse veterinarian whose stockpiles of split oak annually fuel the fire of our Tinker Toy-like evaporator. About 34 gallons of sap from maples on our little farm are required to make a single gallon of syrup, and to achieve our seasonal goal of a dozen or so gallons, two cords of good dried oak might be required.
“And we’ll get the sap from your place to mine’’ — John was on a texting roll now — “by pumping it from the tank on your four-wheeler to a tank in the back of my pickup.’’
So it was a week or so ago that 55 maples on our farm were tapped. On Tuesday, while Mike and I burned a great pile of waste wood, sap dripped steadily from the maples into blue plastic bags. Above this, joining the strings of cranes and geese, bald eagles were aloft and using the fine day to advance farther up the St. Croix River Valley.
Contrary to popular belief, maple syruping does not occur at a time of year when there is nothing better to do.
Rather, the Moon of the Boiling Sap remains today for its practitioners what it has always been, a sensory-awakening transition season that defies man’s undying attempts to routinize everything.
To that point, on Tuesday in the woods you couldn’t argue with the weather. The temperature hovered on either side of 50, and I was in shirtsleeves.