The joys of snow and syrup

March 31, 2021

Sugaring off, for me, heralds spring: Winter comes to an end. The days lengthen. Sap rises in the maples to reach the branches, to help the buds burst into leaf. As the sap heads up the trunks of the sugar maple trees, we sneak some sap to boil for syrup.

I welcome spring as much as anyone. Still, when it comes to collecting sap, snow can be your best friend, at least when you use technology as primitive as mine.

During my childhood in western Quebec, we gathered sap in buckets and poured the sap into a big plastic tub lashed to the drawbar on our old Massey-Ferguson tractor. The chains on the tractor’s rear tires jangled merrily, to keep it moving in the deep snow. My stepfather drove the tractor; we scampered from tree to tree. Nobody could call this system high-tech; still, it outclassed my operation.

I haul sap from the trees to the evaporator with plastic buckets placed on a toboggan, a classic old wooden relic that I scooped up when someone on my street in Toronto discarded it a few years ago. This year I put out 50 buckets, the maximum I can gather on my own.

That’s where the snow comes in handy. This year each morning I rose early, when the snow lay crystalline and hard on the trails in the sugar bush. The sap froze in the buckets overnight, requiring me to bang them to knock the sap-ice into my collector buckets. Still, the toboggan laden with sap glided like silk through the frozen paths in the forest; I guided the rope carefully to avoid spills as the load sped down the slopes to the evaporator.

This race against time ended a few days before the season did; the last time I used the toboggan, I dragged it across as much mud and dried leaves as snow. After that, I struggled, schlepping buckets, but by then the sap flow slowed, so everything worked out.

Thankfully, friends and neighbours did visit to lend a hand. One chaotic Sunday two sets of friends arrived, each with a puppy. This arrival coincided with the crescendo of the boiling operation. The outdoor evaporator steamed; the wood fire roared; the beer flowed; the puppies cavorted. Up and down the hills the dogs flew. Coco, the senior dog at age 10, struggled to restore order, with limited success.

I distributed sets of leather gloves so that my friends could grasp the scalding sides of the evaporator. We lifted the vessel and poured molten maple syrup into sap buckets. Then we poured it through filters, and into bottles.

Everybody departed with a sodden, filthy, exhausted puppy and a jar of the sweet elixir of March.