Tom Wilder loves to work with his hands and to be outdoors. His roots are in the woods.

So when his brother was getting rid of maple syruping equipment, having lost interest in the hobby, Wilder was willing to take it off his hands. That was a dozen years ago.

Today, Wilder, an Eagle Scout, is still going strong, and he has an unusual routine. Every year he returns to the maple trees on his old block in Shorewood, even though he has since moved to Chanhassen.

He says his former neighbors are more than OK with the arrangement. Wilder pays them back in pints of maple syrup.

He also collects sap from trees scattered around Excelsior and Dayton. Occasionally he even hauls sap from his cabin, which is 150 miles north on Big Trout Lake.

It’s a labor-intensive endeavor, but for Wilder, it provides a reprieve from “tower life,” as he calls his office job in downtown Minneapolis. “I do it because it’s fun and it’s so different from what I do during the day,” Wilder said.

Wilder, who works mainly by himself, uses old-school drills and metal pails (or bags), though this year he’s upgrading his evaporation system. He’ll be able to reduce the sap more efficiently. That means he can tap up to 50 trees, double what he normally does. “There’s an obsessive quality to it,” he said.

Wilder hasn’t started tapping trees yet, though. Like so many other hobbyists across the metro area and beyond, he’s keeping an eye on the weather, hopeful that the sap will start to flow in mid-March. Typically, it runs for a few weeks, he said.

At this stage, it’s too early to say how the season might shake out. A couple of years ago, it was a “bumper crop for maple syrup,” but in 2012, the draw was disappointing. “You never know what you’re going to get,” Wilder said.

Fortunately, for Wilder, it’s not just about the sugary stuff. “I love trudging through the snowbanks, collecting sap, throwing the tennis ball with Gabby,” a springer spaniel in her fourth year of syruping, and hanging out with neighbors, he said.

Sometimes, turkeys, eagles, owls and deer make an appearance. “When you spend time in the woods, you learn to recognize the sounds,” he said. Taking a moment to commune with nature in that way, that’s missing from modern-day life, Wilder added.

Not an exact science

Chris Ransom of Vadnais Heights, who is the secretary for the Minnesota Maple Syrup Producers Association, underscored the uncertainty of it all. Nature can’t be pinned down: “All we can say is that there will be a maple season this year,” he said.

Snow cover is light, except in the Arrowhead Region. Some people are worried about “how fast it will warm up this year,” but that’s subject to change, Ransom said.

Shannon Stewart, a naturalist at the Tamarack Nature Center in White Bear Lake, which offers hands-on workshops on the subject, explained the science behind it. For starters, the sap that the trees created last year is being stored in the roots over the winter, she said. As the temperature warms up, the pressure changes inside the trees, forcing the sap up through the trees. “We’re catching it as it’s moving up through the tree,” Stewart said. “We need temperatures above freezing during the day and below that at night.”

“You need to do it at the right time,” Stewart said. That’s part of the appeal. “It’s like a big treasure hunt. You never know how it’ll turn out.”

That’s what children love about it — the sheer mystery of it, she said.

During her programs, Stewart talks about how this practice originated with American Indians. She shows birch bark artifacts and other items that predated the cast-iron cookware of the pioneers.

Rebecca Yoshino, director of the Wozupi Tribal Gardens in Prior Lake, which has a small commercial maple syrup operation on grounds that are maintained by the Shakopee Mdewakanton Dakota, elaborated on that. Historically, “maple sugar was something this community made right here for hundreds of years,” she said.

The sap was boiled down to sugar form, not maple syrup. “The calories from the first harvest of the season were important. The food stores would’ve been diminishing come March,” Yoshino said.

Today, maple candy, which some people call sugar cakes, or maple syrup that’s beginning to granulate, is “the closest thing we’re making that would be close to traditional sugar,” Yoshino said.

Old and new traditions

Although it’s tough to gauge just how many people are maple syruping these days, Ransom said it continues to gain in popularity.

He’s always learning about producers big and small that he never knew about, including one in Waterville that puts out thousands of taps every year.

For some people, the hobby is tied to long-standing family traditions.

John Peterson remembers his dad cooking sap in a big “witch’s cauldron” over an open fire at the Delano farm that has been in the family since 1899. He recently stumbled upon remnants of an old cooker that had gotten buried underground.

Likewise, several generations in the Protovinsky family have taken to maple syruping.

Scott Protovinsky of Ramsey and his dad, Robert Protovinsky, an Andover resident, began syruping together over 15 years ago. Robert’s dad, John, was also a syruper.

The two men like to sit outside on lawn chairs while the sap boils and swap stories. “There’s a nostalgia to it. Just the smell of the sap cooking down is really neat. It has a real sweet smell. It kind of grabs you and holds you. Your clothes end up smelling like maple syrup,” said Robert.

It’s comforting. “It changes your mood into a real peaceful one and it brings you back to nature,” said Scott.

They use a pan that has a bonnet to shield the sap from the elements. As a side effect, it sends the smoke swirling underneath. This gives the syrup a smoky flavor, which sets it apart from the rest, the two men agreed.

The pair don’t sell the syrup — it’s a labor of love — but it is its own sweet reward, said Scott, adding, “I don’t use store-bought syrup.”

He drizzles it on everything from pancakes to popcorn. “I heard someone tried it with cottage cheese and it worked for him,” said Robert. “It’s all natural. You know what’s in it.”

Jora Bart, whose parents are the second-generation owners of Hollydale Golf Course in Plymouth, said her brother, Ryan Deziel, the “Grizzly Adams” of the family (and head greens keeper for the business), is the ringleader for their syrup production.

He rounds up everyone to pitch in. The tapping is “such a great excuse to get the family together,” she said.

Deziel sets an alarm to get up every three hours during the night to stir the boiling sap. “It’s crazy how much sap you have to boil,” just for one gallon of syrup, she said. For her brother, it’s not a chore — it’s therapy, she said.

Still others are embracing maple syruping as a new family tradition.

Rob Collins and his family recently moved from Des Moines, Iowa, to a 1.4-acre property in Bloomington. When they realized their heavily forested yard had numerous maple trees, they decided to try out tapping.

Collins researched the process, “feeling” his way through it. The couple threw a maple syrup boiling party. Their three young children helped out.

Boiling the sap required some tender loving care. “You’ll be boiling it as hard as you can — you don’t have a care in the world. Then it gets thicker and you have to care for it,” Collins said. “It’s like staring at a beautiful scene.”

It resulted in “just absolutely the best maple syrup we’d ever had,” he said. “There’s a lot of pride in making something yourself.”

 

Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at annaprattjournalist@gmail.com.