December 9, 2023

Sweet Success

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Journal—March 21–Tuesday

The days are getting longer, and the sounds of birds returning from their southern haunts certainly brighten each day. The cool nights and sunny days bring the maple sap to peak flow. This season Margie and I bottled up just over eight gallons of the liquid gold…

I will relate to you dear journal the highlights of the syrup season. After a false start near the end of February, brought on by unseasonably warm weather, the maples produced less sap flow than in other years during the March run. I still bottled eight gallons or so of medium amber grade syrup, but it took more time and effort.

The preparations are often as time consuming as the gathering of fine sap.

Due to the deep snow from January and earlier February, I needed my Snocraft bear paw snowshoes to pack trails to the maple trees. I like to have well packed and hopefully hardened tracks by the time the sap flows. My path was devised to be the most energy efficient on my dear old body, as I would have to carry the sweet daily drippings, or pull a sled. I drilled a hole in the maple outside the kitchen window to help me determine when the sap starts to run. Each day I would check for a wet spot of running sap on the side of the tree indicating its time!

I cleared the snow off the roof of my boiling lean-to, and stacked the wood pile up to the eaves in preparation for the boiling of sap. My stove or hearth is built of old bricks hauled from a cellar hole at the old place up back on the hill. I stacked them in a double thick wall with no mortar. Wired on the front is an old front door off an Atlantic parlor heater, and is big enough to put good sized wood into the stove. There is a new piece of galvanized stove pipe that includes an elbow and three straight sections wired sturdily to the rear of the firebox and to the side post of the lean-to. My fifteen gallon sap pan–fabricated at Longley’s in Norway, Maine–sets neatly onto the open top of the fireplace. I had them solder a spigot in the side to drain the syrup off.

Margie helped me rinse and clean the sap pails, covers, spiles and the glass jug. She pawed around underneath the cupboard for the old metal pot she used to evaporate the syrup to its finished state. I cleaned out the half dozen metal milk cans and rigged a harness on the old wood sled to hold one ten gallon can. Brinker was curious of the preparations and followed along trying to stay out from under foot.

I spotted the sap dripping quite freely from my test tap one afternoon; so the next day we were off and running. I finished up my morning chores as early I could, so the packed trail would still be frozen to get around with my sled. I drilled a hole or two in each of the maples I wanted to tap. (When I was a kid, my mother wanted to know what I was doing on that fine spring day with the little hammer in my hand. I replied, “I want to tap some trees of course.” Guess it was a premonition of things to come). I bored each hole at a slight up angle with a bit and brace. I drove in a spile and put an eight penny nail just below to hold up the sap pail. The lids slid over the top of the pail to keep out rain, snow, or other debris from getting on the spile or into the pail. I had to be sure that the taps weren’t too high, because when the snow melts the pails could be too high to handle. By late morning I had the whole setup done, but not before the snow started to soften up. I wallowed through the last two or three tree preparations.

I finished lunch on that first day then set a pail on the maple outside the kitchen window and near the back steps. I also hang the glass jug on this tree, the one you probably were wondering about. I like to sit at the kitchen table and watch the dripping sap make little rings of disturbance in the glass jug. I like to get a nice cool glass of sap for my lunch each day during sap season, so this is a handy place to get the sap. Sometimes I think I would like the sap more than the syrup, but sap tends to spoil over time.

My daily routine starts the next afternoon when the sun starts toward the top of Peabody Mountain, in Albany, Maine. I trod along on snowshoes to collect the sap from the trees along the field in the milk can strapped to the sled. The pails near the road are collected in milk cans set in the back of “Molly” my pickup. The milk cans that are filled with sap are consolidated near the fire place. I fill the pan with fresh sap, strain out insects and other debris, and start the fire in the stove. It takes a lot of stoking for the sap to come to a boil, but when it does the aroma outside the back shed is wonderfully sweet! I try to keep a boil on through out the day and night as long as there is sap to keep in the pan—sometimes the sleep gets a little ragged. When I think the color and thickness are about right, I drain off this last gallon or so to finish on the kitchen stove. Margie will strain the thin syrup through cheesecloth to clear out any cinders, and gently boil the syrup to perfection. I sometimes give her a hard time about being particular about cleaning out the few bits of charcoal from the fire. I like the faint taste of smoke in the syrup; as it reminds me of the syrup my grandfather put up. She assures me that it will be smoky enough.

The season ran on with some days of overflowing pails to days with just a piddlin’ amount. It depended on the amount of warmth and sunshine–both in short supply. I worked through the snow early on, but ended in the mud before I was through. There were many long nights keeping a fire going under the sap pan, and hauling wood for the fire. There were some times that were randomly inserted in my sapping life to keep things on the lighter side. One afternoon I was on my last trip up the field on my snowshoes, when a snowshoe tip caught under a piece of crust. I don’t know if it was me being tired, trying to hurry to get done, or just one of those things; but I fell down big time! My knees punched through the snow and I was lying flat on my belly. In short order I could feel a cold chill run down my spine; as a leaking sap can splashed a couple of gallons of the stuff down the back of my wool pants. Fortunately Brinker was able to lap up some of the sweet sap and offer his form of a smile at my state. I struggled to right myself and plodded home soaking wet from the belly down.

Another morning I was getting ready to fire up the stove under the full sap pan, when I spied a red squirrel flitting around in the woodpile near the stove. I had one arm holding a half dozen pieces of nice oak, so I quickly scooped up a hand full of snow in my woolen mitten. I took a couple of good squeezes on the snowball and felt some water run out. I was about ten paces from the wood pile when I hurled the snowball at Mr. Red. Murphy’s Law struck my life the same time the snowball struck the squirrel. The squirrel had seen me loft the snow projectile and ducked into a crack between some sticks of wood in the pile. He was quite high up near the eaves of the lean-to. My throw hit the exact crack he ducked into and hit with enough force to push him all the way through. Yes, you guessed it—he landed plop right in the middle of the full pan of sap. He, to say the least, was quite disturbed by my intrusion and his unplanned bath. The squirrel crawled out, shook off, ran across the back yard to a tree, and climbed to a sunny spot to regain his composure. Now I had to decide if the pan had be emptied and cleaned—sanitation right? Were there hairs in the sap? Were there squirrel things now as floaties? What a quandary—I knew what Margie would say, so I didn’t say anything. As I said before we had lots of great syrup this season.

I often think of the time and energy we put into this endeavor, but it is certainly appreciated almost each day I use a little for my tea or cereal. Margie likes to make scrumptious baked beans and fudge with maple syrup—and I can’t forget the whoopee pies!! So every jug full is certainly a “sweet success”………..

Sweetly Penned’
Eleazer Peabody