Sunday morning John Weyrauch was in his kind of cathedral. Overhead the sky was blue and a pair of geese angled up the St. Croix River Valley, flying north. Completing a trifecta of natural wonders, sap drawn from 50 or so maples flowed through clear tubing.
"It's been a little different year," he said. "Sap flowed on and off, and then on again. But in the end, I'll probably collect about a thousand gallons."
For a decade or more, John and I were in the sap-gathering and syrup-making game together. This was a private affair, not intended to make a profit, and in that respect resembled other big ideas I've had.
The goal instead was to get into the woods after the snow starts to melt and before tom turkeys gobble, a now-you-see-it-now-you-don't seasonal window that is otherwise easy to miss.
Another attraction of the pastime is that real maple syrup is delectable. Mrs. Butterworth might be a nice lady, but high fructose corn syrup is a different kettle of fish, as it were. Whether atop ice cream or pancakes, French toast or oatmeal, real maple syrup made by one's own hand is an unmatched delight, the culinary equivalent of winning the lottery.
One of 19 states and three Canadian provinces where real maple syrup is made commercially, Minnesota is also home to tens of thousands of backyard syrup producers. Among these, none had a more rinky-dink operation than John and me when we started.
That first year, our syrup-making effort yielded only about a gallon of the sweet stuff finished atop John's stove. From there we graduated to a homemade cooker, or evaporator, that a neighbor, Lon Navis, helped us build.
This boosted our production by perhaps fivefold. But our workload also increased, at times exponentially. Tapping trees, adorning those trees with plastic sap-collection bags, and transferring the acquired sap to a 35-gallon tank that sat atop the rear rack of my four-wheeler all took time.
"The biggest problem with that was how many times we had to transfer the sap to get it cooked down into syrup," John said. "Once it was in the tank on the four-wheeler, we had to pump the sap into a tank that fed the evaporator. Meanwhile, because it was always muddy in the spring in your woods, the four-wheeler dug ruts everywhere."
As John spoke, he tended to the endpoint of about 1,000 feet of plastic tubing. Feeding a steady stream of sap into a large vat, the tubing was first employed by John last year in an attempt to speed up the sap-collection process while increasing each tree's production.
Commercial syruping operations have used tubing systems for decades. Theirs, however, often employ vacuum pumps, essentially to draw sap out of tapped trees and through the tubing to a collection point.
Gravity systems, by contrast, while generally producing fewer gallons of sap per tapped tree, are less expensive to set up and operate than pump systems, and don't require electricity or other means to power the pumps. Therefore, they have key advantages for the do-it-yourselfer.
"Generally, you can't set up a gravity system if you don't have a drop in elevation from the farthest tree in your system to the collection point," John said. "In these woods, we probably have a drop of only a few feet from back to front, a distance of about 1,000 feet. But it's enough to create a downhill flow of sap, which in turn creates a vacuum in the tubing, which helps pull sap out of the trees."
Experiments have shown that tubing size is crucial. Inside diameter of 3/16 inch is perhaps optimal-size, because it tends to create more vacuum more continuously than larger tubing, such as 5/16 inch.
Most commercial tube operations, as well as many mom-and-pop outfits, lay their lines on the ground. John by contrast hangs his about 6 feet in the air, stringing them from tree to tree, believing doing so reduces the chance that deer or other animals will damage the tubing.
At the endpoint of John's tubing Sunday morning, a large plastic vat he bought online for $25 received a steady drip, drip, drip of sap.
"I use a pump to move the sap from the collection vat to a similar vat in my pickup, and use the same pump to empty the vat in my pickup to the vat that feeds the evaporator," John said.
All of which might sound like a lot of work. But it's less work than pure maple syrup is tasty.
Besides, it's a good reason to get into the woods after the snow starts to melt and before tom turkeys gobble, a now-you-see-it-now-you-don't seasonal window that is otherwise easy to miss.