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Maple syrup moves to the rhythm of spring

TERRY AND KYLE MOORE are ecstatic. After learning the ropes of maple syrup production each spring for five years, they’re finally cashing in. The sap has been flowing briskly all weekend. Their assortment of high- and low-tech gear is working perfectly. And they’ve got the boiling technique down pat. They started at 9 am this Monday morning and by 7:30 pm they’re pouring off jar after jar of rich, amber syrup. It’s a bumper year, more than double the production of any previous spring. Neither guy can stop grinning at their magical good fortune.

Walking into their sugar shack, on the edge of a mature mixed forest behind their rural home in northern Wellington County, I smell a familar scent – sweet, a little green and slightly smoky. It’s deliciously warm in the shed, even with an open door, because the hardwood fire in their small evaporator is roaring. Terry is bent over the firebox and Kyle is tinkering with the valve that gradually feeds sap into the shiny, stainless steel contraption. Outside, wild turkeys are scouring the dormant hay field opposite for something to eat.

I’ve come up here to relive many seasons spent making my own maple syrup, albeit on a smaller scale than Terry and Kyle (and they’re still hobbyists, in the grand scheme of things). I had a dozen taps in six or seven trees, hand collected in buckets. They have a hundred taps, collected with lines, tanks and then an ATV fitted with caterpillar tracks. A commercial operator would have a thousand or more, with a high-tech pumping system, sometimes computer controlled.

I first made syrup as a university student. We lived on a rural property (see previous story about Total Loss Farm), with sugar maples right beside the house. Coming from B.C., a province devoid of the species acer saccharum, I was keen to learn all about it. We gathered sap in apple juice cans hung by coathanger wire from the trees, and boiled it in an old washing machine drum on an outdoor fire. Not terribly easy or efficient – but a rustic introduction to the craft nonetheless.

When we moved to Fergus, Ontario – with half a dozen maples in our immediate vicinity – I tried again. I knew from earlier experience that outdoor production was essential, but I couldn’t have a big open fire in town. My solution? I fired up the barby, with roasting pans perched on the grill! The method worked, but barely. The barbecue wasn’t hot enough, and my pans were too small for the gallons of sap pouring out of the trees. I measured my production in cups that spring.

The following year I bought some gear mail order from a real supplier. My evaporator was a stainless finishing pan, perched on a large propane burner. Big enough to handle 40 litres of sap, which I could replenish through the day as it boiled down. I worked from home as an editor back then, and could easily combine my round the clock hobby with my day job.

I did this for half a dozen years, and continued tapping maples on my neighbour’s property when we moved to Elora (we had only cedars). One spring, the weather turned warm early, and the activity for Thomas’ March 5 birthday party was drilling the 7/16” holes, knocking in the spiles, and setting up my buckets and lids. The kids loved it, even if I couldn’t send them home with syrup right away.

My favourite part of the enterprise wasn’t the syrup itself. Mostly, I loved the way it got me outside at the very first crack of spring, and put me in intimate touch with maple sap’s number one variable, the weather. And I was fascinated to connect with the amazing biology of the maple tree, pumping huge volumes of sugar water up to buds that hadn’t even formed,  a process I still don’t fully understand after much reading and a decade of observation.

Eventually, I lost heart for my hobby, because of global warming. It seemed insane to be trading 40 pounds of propane, a fossil fuel, for a litre or two of maple syrup, a discretionary condiment. (It was also expensive, as the price of a barbecue tank of propane rose into the teens – especially when I could buy a gallon of syrup from the Mennonites in nearby St. Jacob’s for less than $40.) I sold my equipment, and didn’t smell the sweet aroma of boiling sap again – until this afternoon.

Terry and his son Kyle aren’t farmers, but they are rural, having lived on their 40 acres of land for over two decades, heating almost exclusively with wood they cut, gather, split, stack and dry with their own hands. Terry worked the whole time in “the regulated class struggle” as he calls it – his name for union representative. It was a hard career to combine with his growing maple syrup obsession. I remember the year they first got their real evaporator, and Terry took two weeks off work around March break. That would be the year where the right weather clicked in only at the tail end of his holiday. Grrrrr.

Terry retired last fall, so he can boil sap to his heart’s content this year (although I also notice a big stack of serious reading material by his chair in the shack). It involves a million little jobs, so the two of them are in pretty constant motion  – checking gauges, stoking the fire, preparing jars and so on.

At last the moment is upon us. They’ve emptied the large evaporator after a day of boiling, and multiple gallons of concentrated sap are bubbling madly on a smaller, propane-fired stove (much like the one I used to use as my main evaporator). They measure their brew in several different ways as it approaches syruphood. The temperature rises as sugar content increases (just like candy making) – their target is 107º C. They also have two varieties of densitometer, plus a barometer hanging on the wall. And if all else fails, they can eyeball it – judging the syrup’s viscosity by the look of its surface bubbles and the foam they create.

Suddenly, Terry switches off the fire and starts filling one-litre mason jars from the levered spigot at the base of the pan. He wears thermal gloves because everything is very hot and passes the filled jars to Kyle, who caps them and adjusts their seal. Almost on cue, Shirley arrives to watch this exciting final stage of production.

In minutes, they’ve packaged their day’s work. Kyle announces the grand total so far this season – 72 litres of syrup. That’s a lot of pancakes! They’re finally approaching their theoretical upper limit of one litre of syrup per installed tree tap – a level they’ve never reached in previous seasons, but which now seems nearly within their grasp.

Terry and I are still talking about his new area of study – global warming, alternative energy, nuclear power – as we carry the gear that needs washing back up to their log house, where Shirley has a casserole of mac and cheese waiting. It’s almost 8 pm, the light is falling and the wind has picked up. It’s bitter again, hardly spring at all, in that infuriating vacillation of weather that is Ontario in April.

They may be finished now for the year. But if Kyle checks the sugar bush holding tanks in the morning and there’s enough sap for a good boil, they’ll be out at the shack for another 10 hours tomorrow, pushing their total even higher. Terry smiles at the prospect, and I secretly cross my fingers that the mercury goes below zero tonight, setting them up for another day of sugaring tomorrow.

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