January 4, 2024

When the weather gets cold, I get excited. Why? I am not sure. I know I am not alone. I think it’s because cold weather offers so many opportunities for fun. Toboggan, snowshoe, skate, ski, cross-country ski: these are the things you get to do in winter.

Along with the fact that it is January, and thus, nominally winter, cold is on my mind these days because I am at work on a book about the history of maple syrup in Canada. One thing I’ve learned in my research is that the long cold winter of North America’s northeast – as distinct from the weather patterns of Europe, for example – are vital to the maple syrup industry. The cold creates the conditions that farmers require in spring to make maple syrup: good flows of sap with a reasonable content of sugar.

Europeans have tried to make maple syrup at home, and failed. During the Napoleonic Wars, the British blockade prevented sugar made in the Caribbean from reaching the European continent. Germany, Austria and Sweden experimented with planting maple trees for maple sugar. But the short springs on the Continent proved incompatible with the endeavour; the Europeans got scant sweetness from their trees, and the sap did not flow. After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, Britain lifted the blockade and Europe, once again awash in Caribbean sugar, abandoned its attempts to make sugar from maple trees.

Here at home in the winter, on cold nights, air and other gases in a maple tree shrink, creating suction that pulls water into the tree. Then in the morning in spring when the weather warms above freezing, the heat melts the ice and the compressed gas in the tree expands. The pressure in the tree is greater than the pressure outside. When the sun warms the tree in the morning, positive pressure builds; make a hole in the trunk and some sap will come out. This sap is sweet because trees in late winter mobilize some of their stored sugar to fuel flowering and leaf growth. Boil this sap, and you get maple syrup.

Over the holidays this year my wife and I, and our children, gathered at our farm in Madoc, which is about halfway between Toronto and Ottawa. Only Dec. 22, the day after our arrival, was cold enough to freeze the pond, and allow us to skate. Thank God we seized the day. I went into the village and bought a pair of Tacks, hockey skates Made in Canada, exactly my size, 9 ½, for $10. My son and I walked out to the back with Rook, our black lab, who is 2. Coco, our chocolate lab, is 13 and too old for a skating trip.

There was about a centimetre of snow on the ground. We picked our way through the forest of planted conifers and got to the swamp. Somewhere in the middle of the swamp is a pond, which is off-limits the rest of the year, but magical on a cold day before the snow comes.

We sat down on some fallen logs, lying crooked and half-submerged in the ice, and laced up. And then we began to skate. Once in awhile the ice cracked a bit beneath our blades. The ice was as smooth as glass. No Zamboni can make ice as perfect as Mother Nature crafts it. We swooped and swirled and spun and sped. My son had not been on skates in years; he actually is a much better skater than he was back then. Not sure why: he just seems confident.

Perhaps another great thing about the cold is the joy one feels to go inside and get warm. We walked back to the cottage and put a log on the fire and drank a cup of apple cider. Vive le froid.