(published in The Country Connections Magazine, No. 53, Winter/Spring, 2007)
The weathered old wooden sugarshack is barely visible through the swirls of smoke and steam that drift from the iron smoke stack on the roof. The sweet aroma of maple hangs in the air. My two girls, Sarah and Ann, run up the path that winds through the forest of maple trees, their black rubber boots splashing through the puddles. Three-year-old Brendan is less in a hurry to reach the shack. His attention is drawn to the sap buckets hanging on the trees. He’s already learned how to lift a half-full bucket from its hook below the spoil, and tip it up to his lips to drink the sweet nectar. But the bucket he’s chosen has only a cup of sap in the bottom. He tips it up so high that his head disappears inside and only his little round body, dressed in a red nylon splash suit and rubber boots, remains visible. He reminds me of Winnie the Pooh with his head stuck in the honey pot.
We reach the door of the sugar shack and push it open. It takes a moment to adjust to the near darkness. Sunlight dances in streams through the spaces between the blackened wall boards. Uncle Ray is leaning over the flat metal pans that are suspended on an iron frame above the firebox. He has one foot propped up on the stonewall, next to an old sludge bucket. With a flat metal scoop on a long wooden handle, he reaches over the dark liquid in the pan and skims off the foam that is forming on the top. He adds that to the bucket by his foot.
There’s a rough wooden bench along one wall where guests can sit. Behind it, large pieces of box-board have been mounted. We each search for a cooled piece of coal near the fire and add our names and the date to this “guest book” that has been there for decades. New pieces are added as space becomes scarce.
Uncle Ray moves to the front of the box and slides up the battered piece of tin to reveal a pile of red coals. He carries over an armload of split wood and adds them to the fire. The wood crackles and the flames jump. The sap in the pan above begins to bubble. He replaces the tin cover to contain the fire, and then returns his attention to the pans.
There are two large pans, each about four feet long and three feet wide. The fire is built directly under the front pan. As the sap in that pan boils and evaporates, cooler sap from the back pan is scooped up in a ladle, and transferred to the front pan. The ladle is devised from another sap bucket with a wooden handle. Grey metal milk cans are lined up along the wall. They contain more sap that will be added to the back pan as its contents diminish.
More buckets sit on a table on the opposite wall. White cotton cloths are draped inside them and secured with wooden clothespins. When the big tin thermometer tells Ray that the sap has reached the temperature to become syrup, he takes a sample on a soup spoon and lets it cool for a bit. Then he turns the spoon to let the liquid slide around. If it leaves a nice film on the spoon, he tastes it. Once he’s given it his approval, he pours the syrup into the lined buckets. The cloths strain out any sediments to make the syrup clear and smooth.
“I’ve brought Johnny Cake, Uncle Ray,” I say and he grins. “I’ve got fresh maple syrup to pour over it,” he replies with a chuckle.
By now there are several aunts, uncles and cousins crowding around, all on a Sunday afternoon outing to the sugar bush. I cut the cornmeal cake and serve it on plates. Ray adds a ladle of warm syrup to each.
When we’ve all eaten, it’s time to load up the wagon with empty milk cans, gathering pails and the one big gathering tank. Ray stays and tends the fire while the rest of us head out to harvest the day’s sap. Many of us manage to squeeze into the wagon, slumped between milk cans and pails.
“Don’t sit on the milk cans. We’ll never get the lids off,” Ray calls out to us.
We all hold on tight as the battered red farm tractor pulls us over the bumpy track towards the lower bush. When it stops, we clamber out with our pails and make our way through the maze of buckets that are now overflowing with the clear liquid. I place my pail along side a bucket, holding the tin lid up with one finger, and tip the bucket until its contents pour into my pail. If the sap has run well, I’ll only be able to empty two or three buckets before carrying my pail back to the wagon to be emptied into the gathering tank.
Soon the ping, ping of sap dripping into the now empty buckets can be heard behind us. It takes nearly an hour to gather all the sap from the 300 buckets that have been hung.
Back at the sugar shack the liquid treasure is unloaded. Ray has filled cans and bottles with the thick sweet liquid, ready for distribution. It was a good run so someone will have to tend the fire all night to keep the sap boiling. Between Ray and his nephews, it will be done out of love for the tradition.
It’s the 1970’s and most area maple syrup producers, as a labour saving measure, have installed plastic pipelines to carry the sap directly to the large, modern sugar-houses. But they’ve become commercial enterprises. Ours is a family affair. We make enough syrup to provide the extended family with all we need. Any excess is sold to long-standing customers who prefer the taste of maple syrup made the old fashioned way.