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John Perko, left, and Lon Navis at Navis' St. Croix Valley home north of Stillwater, watch over a vat of maple sap that is boiling, intending to be syrup.

Dennis Anderson, Star Tribune

Lon Navis checks a tree that he says is a perennial producer of sap. But this year it too is struggling to produce, due to the warm weather.

Dennis Anderson, Star Tribune

Two quarts of maple syrup from the (so-far) limited crop of 2012 sap.

Dennis Anderson, Star Tribune

Slow sap flow: sticky situation

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON
  • Star Tribune
  • March 13, 2012 - 10:31 PM

As Lon Navis and I jawboned the other day in preparation for spring sugaring, missing in the woods surrounding us were the deeply packed snowdrifts that signal a good season for sap gathering.

Instead, like patchwork, snow lay only scattered among the maples, leaving the forest floor mostly bare and almost dry.

"I'm not quite sure how this will work," Lon said.

For those who treasure the in- between time that March represents, seeing it as a siren call to tramp about a sugarbush, gathering sap and making syrup, the non-existent winter just past was reason to worry.

Maples are among trees that find good long spells of cold invigorating. But this winter, December, January and February passed with hardly a freeze among them. Now spring seemed to be unfolding more like summer.

"I'm almost out of last year's syrup," I said to Lon. "I hope this season isn't a bust."

Our neighborhood sap-gathering expert, Lon every March can be found either in his sugarbush or alongside his big cooker, overseeing the boiling of a few hundred gallons of sap.

His experience has gained him important insights into spring sugaring, not least that the process is best served by sunny days with temperatures in the 40s, followed by freezing nights.

Even then, sap flow isn't easily predicted, and the best course often is not to get too caught up in the weather. Otherwise, a person might fret himself into gathering no sap, believing a given year won't be worth the effort.

But bad weather or good, what else is there to do in March? Trout fishing can wait. Steelheading is weeks away. And turkey hunting, a month distant.

Meantime, in a sugarbush, a sensory rush awaits. Returning Canada geese honk, swans lumber against blue skies, and sandhill cranes wing north toward Crex Meadows.

A community

Sap collecting and syrup making are communal affairs.

A neighbor, John Perko, helps Lon hang bags, collect sap and stoke the cooker as needed.

Not far away, on my property, my friend John Weyrauch similarly joins the fun, as does my son, Cole, who daily pilots more-or-less recklessly our four-wheeler among tall maples, collecting sap.

Behind him on the machine is a 35-gallon tank, and when he returns with it brimming to the top, everyone is happy.

Many in Minnesota and Wisconsin share the sugaring passion.

At Mille Lacs, Steve Fellegy will soon be hunkered over an evaporator. Toward Afton, Tony Berg and his buddies will put up some syrup. While near Ellsworth, Wis., Kate Wolf recalls just now the many springs when she camped for weeks in a northern maple forest, collecting and boiling sap on the spot, and turning it into syrup.

The experience, she says, was a seasonal labor of love that bordered on transcendental.

David Richter wouldn't disagree. He's a big operator near Luck, Wis., with 4,000 trees tapped this spring.

"I'm not discouraged yet by the weather, it's too early to be discouraged," he said Tuesday. "Providing we get some cold weather back, we have until the middle of April to collect sap. It can still be a great year."

By Friday, Lon and John Perko had tapped more than 100 trees, while John Weyrauch, Cole and I had drilled about 30. The results weren't encouraging: Many offered no sap, and others, only a trickle.

Last year, John, Cole and I put up about seven gallons of syrup, the fruit of more than 250 gallons of sap.

By Sunday night, we'd collected only 20 gallons of sap, while Lon and his crew had perhaps 75 gallons.

Monday, no sap flowed.

"I think it's best to boil what you have," Lon said. "And hope for colder weather.''

Amid a drizzle Monday afternoon, I lit a match to some good dry oak and elm, and fired up my cooker. It wasn't until 1 a.m. Tuesday that I had reduced my 20 gallons of sap to two quarts of syrup.

My wife, Jan, was kind enough to help filter the final product, and bottle it.

But not before we dripped a few spoonfuls over vanilla ice cream, a seasonal treat.

Now, while others enjoy this inordinately temperate spring pedaling their bikes on dry paths, or running in T-shirts and shorts, we wait for cold and snow -- and more sap to flow.

Dennis Anderson danderson@startribune.com

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