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Sweat was sparkling just below the edge of Brother Walter Kieffer's fleece cap as he high-stepped through the snow in a maple forest at St. John's University, quickly drilling holes in one tree after another.
But 47 years after he first started helping coax hundreds of maples into sharing their sap for syrup, Kieffer described it as something more than a chore.
"It's a lot of, lot of work, but it's just something to get spring going in your blood," Kieffer said during a brief pause. "And it is in my blood. It's a ritual. And now we've got to go to work."
Tapping Day on a recent Saturday was the annual revival of the seasonal process of syrup-making that began at St. John's in 1942. Kieffer led a parade of more than 75 volunteer students and staff from St. John's and the St. John's Arboretum through the tapping routine. Monks at the abbey in Collegeville, Minn., used to tap as many as 3,000 trees each spring, but with fewer monks eating fewer pancakes, the group tapped 800 trees in about two hours.
"The hardest thing to do is to keep up with him," Jean Lavigne, a St. John's environmental studies assistant professor, said of Kieffer, 62.
Over the next several weeks, Kieffer and the crews will repeatedly collect the sap buckets and dump the sap into 55-gallon drums. The sap will be hauled to the sugar shack, where it will get circulated and cooked in large pans over heat high enough to evaporate 200 gallons of water an hour. About 40 gallons of sap yield one gallon of syrup. Each tap, Kieffer said, produces about 10 gallons of sap.
Many large-scale syrup operations use systems of pumps and hoses to suck sap from the trees and move it to holding tanks. At St. John's the only mechanical aids appear to be an old John Deere tractor for hauling supplies, and Kieffer's hole-driller, a 40-year-old chainsaw modified with a 7/16-inch drill bit running out the side of the engine. On Tapping Day, only minutes after spikes were hammered into the trees, droplets of sap were already working their way to the lip of each spike. Each falling drop struck the bottom of its bucket like a gentle mallet, a drumbeat for spring.
There's no way to predict what kind of syruping season this will be. The recent warm weather has slowed the sap run a bit, said Sarah Gainey, environmental education coordinator for the St. John's Arboretum. But the sap will be good for syrup until the trees start making leaves in several weeks.
The syrup won't be sold. What doesn't get used by the monks will be given to friends and supporters of St. John's, the abbey and the arboretum, commemorating the Benedictine tradition of land stewardship, as well as spring itself.
"It's a gift to us, and it's something we can give away," Kieffer said.
But the public can share it during the Maple Syrup Festival on Saturday and April 4 from 1 to 4 p.m. Syrup making and a maple syrup sundae will be part of a slate of family activities. For more information, go to tinyurl.com/cxev4t.
Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646