There’s lots of jokes in New England about the “fifth season” – false spring, fool’s spring, spring of deception, mud season, 1st winter, 2nd winter, 3rd winter, etc. Around here, we celebrate Maple Season.
Maple Season begins when the temperature gets above freezing during the day but still gets below freezing at night. It ends when the weather gets warm enough (for long enough) to convince the maple trees to bud. During this time the trees pull water, sugars, and minerals – sap – from the ground to nourish itself for spring growth. That’s where us maple sugarers show up with our spiles and spouts, drills and hammers – tap, tap, tap – and draw off a little of that sap.
Of course, we’re after the sugar. Maple sap is typically 1-2% sugar, and in the aptly-named sugar maple, it can be higher. One must boil approximately 40 gallons of sap to get one gallon of maple syrup.
Sugar maples are also known as rock maples because they grow in rugged areas. Steep mountainous terrain is no challenge for the sugar maple. The only challenge is getting them tapped!
The poet Whitman teased about how wimpy we humans are compared to the strong rock maple:
“How it rebukes, by its tough and equable serenity in all weathers, this gutsy-tempered whiffet, man, that runs indoors at a mite of rain or snow.”
The Sandwich Mountain Range spills down into our valley below – the land is a boulder-pocked scrap of maples and pine. We don’t have the elevation of Whiteface or Passaconaway, but if there’s a flat patch large enough to row-crop on our property, you tell me when you find it. It is prime real estate for the sugar maple.
We’re right around the corner from Maple Ridge Road. It’s a precarious winter’s drive to the top of the ridge, but one with fine views of Mt. Larcom off one side and Mt. Israel from the other -- as well as all the maple tubing and buckets you care to look at. At the top, you can turn either left or right and you’ll find a sugar house within a mile or so.
Maple sugaring is a rich pastime in Sandwich – our stretch of road alone has at least three small-scale boilers (ourselves included). All outdoor rigs, visible from the road, buckets and tubing shaping the landscape around the winding northbound Route 113. Whether heading to Squam Lake or the Whites, you’re bound to pass through a billow of smoke, a waft of maple, and perhaps see some hardy folk lugging buckets across the yard to the boil.
After moving here and realizing we had a lot of sugar maples, I quickly plugged myself into the local maple tradition. I concur with naturalist-philosopher Thoreau that one might hardly notice the maple when in the forest, but to gaze upon just one, it is truly awe-inspiring:
“Many times I thought that if the particular tree….under which I was walking or riding was the only one like it in the country, it would be worth a journey across the continent to see it. Indeed, I have no doubt that such journeys would be undertaken on hearing a true account of it. But instead of being confined to a single tree, this wonder was as cheap and common as the air itself.”
Indeed, I come up to a particular maple behind the house, sprawled over a particularly large stone, gripping to an eroding slope, and I have nothing but adoration for it. In return, it is one of my heaviest producers of its gift to the maple sugarer.
I got started with maple syrup makin' by purchasing a three-tap starter kit at the hardware store -- and I did all my boiling indoors (not recommended!). The next year, I found a small evaporator for sale on craigslist and tapped twenty trees. This year I have acquired a much larger set-up and tapped 75+ trees! Maple sugaring is slow, labor-intensive work, but produces such a pleasurable outcome (syrup!) that it feels well worth every hour tending the fire with fresh firewood and keeping sap levels in the pan just right so it boils efficiently.
The hotter the fire, the faster the boil – but even with a decent-sized rig such as mine I can still spend ten hours or more at the boil, turning seventy gallons of sap into a gallon-and-a-half of syrup. But there’s a lot fun to be had when it’s ten p.m. and music is blasting and there are bottles filling up with hot syrup and everything smells like woodsmoke and maple. A perfect nightcap: brew some chamomile tea and scrape the last drippy bits of syrup from the bottling bucket into the mug.
The syrup from our trees comes out a little bit darker, a little richer, I think. A little smokier, even. Most people think of maple syrup as light and amber-colored, with a delicate flavor. But I certainly take a little pride in our slightly darker syrup after reading an anecdote in the Nearings’ Maple Sugar Book: the authors relay that the old-timer Yankees ‘round these parts have a preference for that darker, richer syrup. It’s the way it’s always been made. Like a true New Englander: there’s a heck of a lot of character.
Sap is the blood of the maple tree. I think sap might run through my veins, too. Go back just a few generations and you’ll find my grandfather and grand-uncle tapping sugar maples with their grandfather on Sugar Island in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I possess a hand-carved wooden spile that was used by my great-great-grandfather Alexander Mastaw. I’m sure glad we don’t have to hand-carve spiles anymore, but it’s a reminder to me to embrace these older traditions as best I can.
As I hone my craft, I hope to find a balance between the old ways and the new ways to make maple syrup. Some tubing, some buckets, lots of farmer’s carries to keep me fit during the sugarin’ season. Wood-fired boils and finishing over the stove in the wee hours.
It might take a little longer, require a little more attention to detail, involve some heavy lifting, but the final outcome will be worth every ounce.