When I was a very young child, my parents “sugared” every spring. We spent many long hours wading through the deep snow to gather the sap, and even more long hours huddled around the fire waiting while the sap boiled. It was a lot of work… thirty-five to forty gallons of sap boils down to make just one gallon of syrup… but it was a lot of fun, too. Often we cooked our supper on the fire or toasted marshmallows while my parents kept an eye on the syrup’s progress. All these years later, even a whiff of a certain type of wood smoke will still bring back happy memories of those times.

Nowadays most of the maple trees around here (except ours) are tapped by one neighbor who sells huge quantities of maple syrup. This man automates the process and uses a network of blue plastic tubing that he leaves in the trees year round.

My father would definitely not approve. He tapped the trees with a hand rotary drill, inserted galvanized metal sap spouts with a hanging hook, and hung metal buckets with a flat cover to keep bugs and rainwater out of the sap… and he ALWAYS removed the spouts after the sap run was over so the trees could heal. Each year he was careful to make the tap holes in different areas of the tree, keeping each tap hole several inches away from any previous holes… and (unlike this neighbor) my father would only tap trees that were at least twelve inches in diameter at chest level. I remember him telling me that a tree of this size could be tapped for one bucket… a larger sixteen-inch diameter tree could be tapped for two buckets… and a tree over twenty-two inches in diameter at chest level could be tapped for three buckets without damaging the tree.

When temperatures rise above freezing during the day and drop down below
freezing at night, this is sugaring weather (and the start of mud season)!

There is an old saying that the sweetest syrup comes from sap collected from trees with full tops and branches close to the ground. Actually, any maple tree can produce sap with some sugar content that could theoretically be boiled down into a syrup, but real maple syrup comes from the hard or sugar maple. Before the sap can run, the weather must provide night temperatures below freezing and daytime temperatures above freezing. Most years there will be only five or six good runs of sap during about a six week period of time.

Fresh sap is clear, looks like water, and tastes sweet. During a good season, as much as fifteen to twenty-five gallons of sap can be taken from a good-sized tree. Sugaring almost always ends abruptly as the weather becomes warmer, the sap flow decreases, and the sap loses its sweetness.

My father boiled the sap in a huge shallow metal sugaring pan supported on a metal grid suspended over a simple fire pit structure that he had made with large rocks. Many nights we would still be outside long after dark waiting for the sap to boil down to the right stage. This was probably the most important part of the sugaring process. If maple syrup isn’t boiled down long enough, the sugar content will be too low and the syrup may mold or ferment in storage. If the syrup is boiled for too long, it becomes too thick, the sugar content will be too high, and the syrup will crystallize in the jar after it cools. Some people used a thermometer to get it right, but my parents relied on the old method of testing the syrup’s density. My mother would slowly pour a large spoonful of the boiling syrup back into the pan. At a certain point the syrup would literally “sheet” off the spoon and they would know that the syrup was ready.

The sap must be running well today because the neighbor has been constantly driving past our house with his huge tanks of collected sap. His more efficient methods mean that he can make more syrup with less effort… but the old, slower way had charm and allowed a oneness with nature that this neighbor will never know.

Progress, I suppose… but I think an intangible something has been lost.