Reflections on Maple Syrup Camp 2014

I’m a slow learner. It took me 10 years of maple syruping to figure out that I’ve been tapping the trees on the wrong side. Maple trees flow every spring across the north country just when the daily temps begin to rise above 40, but when the nights still dip below 20. This back and forth pulses the sap stored in the roots up to the branches to feed to buds. Our sap camp taps about 70 trees. We run short hoses down to five-gallon buckets (which formerly held pickles) through a small hole we drill in the lids. One of our very few technological upgrades was switching from three-gallon malt syrup containers to these five-gallon buckets, beneficial as the frozen sap – an inevitability of catching the notorious “first run” in the earlier months of the season – is easily poured wholesale from the bucket’s wide mouths.

By Wes Eaton

By Wes Eaton

The sun was quickly ducking behind the largish Maple and Beech tree-covered hill behind the hunting cabin we convert to a sap camp come late winter, when I finally made the rather obvious observation that I had been tapping the wrong sides of the trees: the sides hidden from the sun not only during evening but morning as well. Moreover, not only was I giving attention to the wrong sides of the trees, I was tapping trees on the wrong sides of the hill. Behind the cabin the land rises slowly for perhaps 300 yards before a short gully and then the steep towering hill. My dad told me that once a man had offered his mother, the original family property owner, money for the land in the hopes of developing a ski resort. Now I imagine sap lines trailing down the decline, strait to my evaporating pan.

The land slopes upward not only east to west trailing away from the back porch of the hunting cabin, but north and south as well, and I had tapped trees beginning on the north side of the slope leaving few for the south side, which is precisely where all the sap is flowing – this year especially, as the dense snow on the northern slopes is resilient as only forest canopy snow and ice can be. This was important not only in regards to the lessened efficiency of collection, but in a “the world is not what it seems” kind of way – what philosophers might call an “existential experience.” I have been doing things wrong for a long time, and now, by unguided blessing, I could recognize the limits of my former self and rectify my inadequacy – I could tap the trees much better next year.

This is my own lesson on “coming to terms.” I’m not upset at my oversight as much as I am feeling a bit displaced but in a good way, in the sense that I can bolt through the everyday limits I unconsciously impose on myself, albeit spontaneously in the case of my tapping observation. I can switch positions completely, see the world from a different position, and still maintain my identity, which is a warm idea. In years past I have given the story of why I, along with my syruping colleagues, make “breakfast sauce” in the woods of northern Michigan annually each early spring. Themes of previous columns included keeping to tradition, getting off the grid, shoeing through deep snow, gathering and splitting wood, and so on; essentially, references to unplugging for a time in the company of those we love. This is all still relevant, but if I had to answer the same question: “Why do I head to the woods to make syrup?” I would answer this differently now.

For example, this is my 11th year making syrup. The process has entailed gathering both knowledge and technique for a practice new to me, my friends, and immediate family; establishing a sap-making camp; and developing a syrup making system appropriate for my vision of this spring activity. Why do I continue to do this, considering the time, energy, growing commitments and pressures? This was not a question I asked before, so this itself is new – the deeper question being why I choose the patterns I enact annually, seasonally, without fail. How did it get to the point where “this is what I do” and “who I am”? When did sapping actually become important?

This question of course transcends particular activities, like our hobbies, and is important in all of our patterns. My recognition of tapping the trees on the wrong side is important here, the take-away being that the fact life patterns are important does not make them right, nor omit the very real possibility that they are incomplete or in need of some serious readjusting. Tapping the other side of the tree and hill next year will be easy, whereas correctives for other patterns might bring more discomfort. A first step, however, is simply recognizing that a change is needed and therefore possible.

So while patterns are deep-seeded, as they say, they are also malleable. These changes are also at times out of out control. The heavy snowfall this year, for instance, certainly changed our routines at sap camp. Not since January have we been able to drive a vehicle onto the property, instead, for all the weekends in March we snowshoed in from the road after loading toboggans and tying down generators, gas tanks, and other various articles of gear necessary for the task at hand. My wife,nearing the end of the third trimester at the time gallantly but slowly snowshoed in each weekend, and out each night, hoping to get things moving.

When the first real melts came, we promptly stuck the snowmobile in a slush pond near the culvert at the front gate. Extra boots are called for, rather than being simply precautionary. We burn seasoned wood split and stacked last season, as too much snow is covering the usual bounty of tops and limbs. The hard wood – largely cherry and beech split more for the cabin stove than the evaporator pan – burns steady with a high heat, resulting in a less smoky, dark, and complex syrup than that resulting from the usual damp sticks and branches. The syrup is more akin to that made in previous years when I used propane.

So things can change, and yet in doing so, reveal deeper patterns that are bigger than our individual interests. Once the pine forests of northern Michigan were clear cut 100 years ago, entrepreneurs schemed on how to use the bounty of the spared northern hardwoods – largely Sugar Maples – to create charcoal, or coke, to intercept the Upper Peninsula’s iron ore coming through on the new Grand Rapids train line and smelt this into iron before it reached Chicago, Pittsburg, and further on down the line. The steady burn of the area’s sugar maples, once renowned for producing premium quality pig iron, now warms my evaporator, if I can only tap the trees on the right side and get sap into the pan.

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