On Wednesday in the sugar bush, the world appeared a peaceful place. Singing from a nearby treetop, a male cardinal serenaded squirrels that bounded on the crusted snow, while overhead, an eagle carved oblong loops in the cobalt sky. Taking it all in, a great year, it seemed, was in the offing for sap and, ultimately, for syrup.
Not that sap is flowing much just yet. Neither in winter nor quite yet spring, sap gathering often begins on chilled mornings, continues on warm, sunny afternoons, and concludes again in the cold of night.
Finally, when sufficient quantities of sap are stockpiled and the cooker is fired up, swans, ducks and cranes can be spotted aloft, pushing the snow line north, migrating.
Lon Navis is a fan of these times. A neighbor and master sap gatherer, Lon, a retired corporate pilot, stopped over early Wednesday with news that he might need help this year bringing his sap to the fire.
His son, age 30, Lon said, was due home from Los Angeles soon, and the two of them would be quickly off to D.C., not in a G-IV, in which Lon is more accustomed to traveling, but rather in his Prius.
“Apparently it’s important we get to Washington quickly,” Lon said. “My son wants to walk back to Los Angeles, across the country, and if he doesn’t get going in March, he says he could run into trouble come fall in the mountains.”
I considered this a long moment.
Then I said, “Makes my little world seem even more inconsequential than widely believed.”
“But there you have it,” Lon said.
He also said much of his sugar bush work in coming weeks would be relegated to another neighbor, a guy I alternately refer to as John the Welding Artist, or The Dude.
Relatively new to the neighborhood, John the Welding Artist hangs up his acetylene torch for long periods during sapping time. This requires customers of his welding business, which, curiously, he operates under the name Stranger Things Have Happened, to wait until a dozen or more gallons of syrup have been bottled before they receive their steel flowers and other metallurgical handiwork.
“I’ve got news for you, too,” I told Lon. “Big John up and bought a new cooker. It’s in the garage.”
Big John is a sap-gathering partner of mine who on a recent day visited Anderson Maple Syrup supply near Cumberland, Wis. — a daring move, considering he was in the highly fragile emotional state common to sugar-bushers in the pre-sapping season.
“Before he knew it,” I said, “he suffered a purchasing breakdown and coughed up a couple grand for a high-speed cooker.”
“Wood-fired?” Lon asked.
“No other,” I said.
With that, Lon was soon off to the East Coast, while I dispersed to the maple woods to size things up.
One concern was the deep snow. We gather sap using a four-wheeler with a 35-gallon tank strapped to it. If spring arrives early, the downside to this approach is a certain rutting of the landscape. Conversely, in deep snow, like this year’s, our rig might too often get stuck, reducing the collection of sap entirely to footwork — a worrisome possibility.
Disquieting as well, I haven’t yet piled enough wood to fire Big John’s super-duper new cooker. This also is work, but good work, as any wood cutter will tell you; the process from beginning to end an exercise of the type of aggressive tendencies so often seen in the Legislature.
The upshot is that gathering at least some food by your own hand, whether with a gun, a hoe or a bowed back, can provide multiple benefits.
It is true that real maple syrup can be purchased, as can meat wrapped in cellophane, wild rice in a bag and poultry made quickly fat by the wonders of chemistry.
But having your own hand in the mix enriches the process, and the outcome. A venison steak grilled rare can rival beef, as can a pheasant, a chicken. And maple syrup cooked down from your own sap has no equal.
Soon daytime temperatures will hover in the mid-40s, followed by freezing nights. It’s then that sap from the old maples will flow freely.
Scurrying in its collection, I, along with John the Welding Artist, aka the Dude, along with Big John and many others, will be in the woods after it.