Maple syrup mayday

March 23, 2020

At about 3 p.m. on Friday, March 21, 2020, a sunny afternoon in our sugar bush in Madoc, Ontario, with the temperature hovering at about -3C (and well over 100 C in the evaporator pan) I put in the call for help.

For the past few years I have boiled my sap in a pan about the size of a stovetop and as deep as a sink, placed on a couple of iron bars over the u-shaped ruins of an old syrup-making installation in the bush. The technique involves a certain amount of risk. I fill the pan with sap and make a fire under it. I boil it down a lot, then add more sap, pack the fire with as many logs as will fit, and go to bed. In the morning I find a layer of golden sap concentrate, cold and thus easy to handle. I can then leisurely transfer this concentrate to a smaller pot and complete the boiling to syrup, on my camp stove or barbecue.

The risk is that I burn the pan. Hasn’t happened yet.

But on Friday when I returned to the bush from lunch I saw that the sap had nearly become maple syrup. The bubbles had a glassy quality and popped more languidly; the stuff, a layer about 5 cm  deep in the pan, was almost done.

I added what sap was in the sap barrel. I collected some saucers of frozen sap from the bottoms of some buckets on the trees, and added that. Then I poured water on my fire to slow things down. But there was nothing for it: I had to get the syrup off. And so I called my neighbour.

Governments are urging the citizenry to self-isolate to avoid the spread of coronavirus; I have been staying alone in my sugar bush, which is an excellent place to be by myself. My neighbour Gunter rumbles out every day on his tractor to watch me boil. He sits on an old wooden chair in the snow and keeps me company while I feed the fire. He does not have much else to do. He is 88. He tells stories of his childhood in eastern Germany, before and during World War II.

So I called him. His wife, Elsa, answered, and put him on the phone.

“I need help,” I said.

“Okay,” he replied. “I have some visitors, but I will come out. Give me a few minutes.”

I looked nervously at the bubbles in my pan and poured some more water on the fire.

Then I prepared for his arrival. I found a clean white plastic bucket and put it by the pan’s spout. I filled two buckets with water from the rain barrel. Gunter arrived. He turned off his tractor and looked over his shoulder. “People were following but I guess I lost them,” he said.

Then his family began to arrive. First came his son.

“I brought the cavalry,” he said.

Then came the son’s wife, their son (Gunter’s grandson), that man’s wife, and their three children: two sons and a daughter. It was like a scene from The Cat in the Hat Comes Back, when the Cat in the Hat (played by Gunter) takes off his hat and all the other cats (A, B, C, etc.) all appear in the snow. The son, the grandson and the great-grandsons all wore baseball caps and running shoes. I don’t think they’d thought their visit to their great-grandparents’ house (their great-grandmother, Elsa, who cannot walk and does not fit on the tractor, had stayed home) would include a trip to the forest.

Gunter’s son looked around.

“I don’t think I’ve been back here in 40 years,” he said.

“How does it look?”

“The same, except that there’s a structure,” he said, nodding to the unfinished sugar shack.

“Okay Gunter,” I said. “You hold the bucket. I’ll pour in the molten syrup. “And you,” I said to his son, “be ready to pour water into the empty pan.” This is a crucial detail so the pan doesn’t burn on the heat, and to heat water to wash out the pan.

Everyone manned their station. Hot foaming syrup soon filled the white bucket.

Then all nine joined me into the shack. Plastic sheeting covers its walls.

“Hmm. I wonder what is the R-value of this place?” quipped the son, who is a builder.

“Well, a sugar shack is not a place you want to keep warm,” I said. “In fact you want to keep it cool.”

One of the great-grandsons, who is 14, had helped by opening the door. I strained the syrup through a felt cone and caught some in a jar to give him a taste. Then I filled a jar and gave it to his grandmother.

They all left. Gunter stayed and held the funnel as I filled many small and larger jars with syrup. The sun shone. I had stripped to my t-shirt in the heat of the action; now I felt the chill and put on my jacket.

Gunter climbed on his tractor and rumbled off. The water in the pan was now hot and I stayed and scrubbed my pan a long time in the fading light.

I guess I am not so good at social distancing after all. Still, everyone kept their gloves on so I think the whole thing went off without too much risk to anyone’s health.

In fact I think the “fresh nose,” as my mom would call it, did everyone some good.