On and On it Goes

April 14, 2014 § 12 Comments

Drop spindling

Drop spindling

We did a little boil this weekend, adding to our syrup stores by another gallon-and-a-half or so. Rye’s trees ran pretty good on Friday, so he boiled too, the results of which pushed him over last year’s final tally of ½-gallon. The pleasure of this imbued him with a sense of magnanimity, and he donated his extra sap to our rig.

We’re up to four-gallons or so of finished syrup; it’s a fraction of last year’s haul (12-gallons), but it’s better than I feared, and it’s not over yet, though it will be soon. Before long, the trees will start budding, and once they start budding, the sap takes on a bitterness that translates into “buddy” syrup. The big sugar makers sell buddy syrup into the commercial flavoring market, so they keep boiling, but we are decidedly not big sugar makers. Hell, we might not even be small sugar makers.

On Friday, as part of my reporting for a story I’m working on, I visited one of the largest sugaring operations in the state. They’ve got 66,000 taps, spread across something like 2,000 acres, and it’s a full-time, year-round job keeping the whole shootin’ match running. The scale was mind-boggling to me; I spent most of the day riding in one of those little off-road utility vehicles, bouncing around the woods with a woman named Cecile who at 56 moved a good bit faster and seemed a good bit stronger than most guys half her age.

An operation like Cecile’s and Tommy’s (her husband) depends on high vacuum; that is, it depends on vacuum pumps to keep the sap flowing even under less-than-ideal conditions. The key with vacuum is that you’ve gotta find and fix any leaks to the system – a tap that’s pulled out of a tree, for instance, because a branch has fallen on the line, or a deer chew, or whatever. A single leak across all those thousands of miles of pipeline has a measurable impact on production. So every day, Cecile and a crew of another half-dozen or so family members and employees run the lines from sunup to sundown, looking for leaks. They own an entire fleet of ATVs and utility buggies for precisely this purpose.

Later that afternoon, I took a ride with Tommy in a big hauling truck to pick up 4,000-gallons of concentrate at their remote bush, about 15-miles from the sugarhouse. Concentrate is the term for sap that’s been run through a reverse osmosis machine, thus increasing the sugar content. Raw sap is generally in the 2% range; with an RO, sugar makers can take it to 18% or even a little higher, thus reducing the boiling time (and therefore, the fuel necessary to make sap into syrup).

On the ride home, I asked Tommy (who like his wife seems to have more energy and depth of character than most folks half his age) if he every missed the old days; they used to sugar with horses and buckets and boil over old wood-fired arches. He grinned. “I used to tell myself I’d never have pipeline, I’d never give up the horses, I’d never use vacuum, and I’d never be boiling with oil,” he told me. “Now look at me.”

Tommy struck me as a pragmatic guy. He didn’t seem sad or bitter about the changes. It’s just the way things are. In a way, I couldn’t help but admire him for this. He’s not caught in his nostalgia. He’s got those memories, he knows what it used to be, and he liked it then. But he also knows what it is now, and he knows what he needs to do to make it pencil out. He’s got bills to pay. He’s got his children’s future to think about. Horses and buckets don’t pay the bills. Horses and bucket’s don’t leave something for your kids except maybe memories.

Me, I think I’d get stuck in nostalgia. I’d be mired right to the tops of my boots in the way it used to be, while all around me folks who weren’t so damn stupid were buzzing around on ATV’s and checking vacuum. The crazy thing is, Tommy and Cecile told me about a Canadian outfit that’s rumored to be putting in a 500,000-tap operation somewhere in the Northeast Kingdom. If rumors become fact, pretty soon their 66,000-tap maple business won’t seem so big anymore. Pretty soon, it’ll just be the way things used to be.

On and on it goes.






§ 12 Responses to On and On it Goes

  • Bearpaws says:

    And just when you think it couldn’t get more different…..


  • Kent says:

    The enjoyment of maple syrup can be a lot more than just the taste of that sweet amber liquid. The sights, sounds, smell, and feel of boring tap holes, lugging buckets, boiling down, and sampling each run all add to a composite and greatly enhanced experience. Your recent photo of several jars of processed syrup on a window ledge overlooking the pristine snow-covered fields beyond allows me to enjoy my Sunday morning pancakes a lot more than ever. Yes, there is a lot to be said for BOTH “new” and “old” methods. Perhaps a good adage here is: “Be not the first to try the new . . . nor the last to lay the old aside.”

  • Tonya says:

    It still makes me uncomfortable.. Wondering about plastic getting into the syrup, if there is any negative effect on the trees, etc… It just seems it is along the lines of the quest for cheap power. Not thinking about the environment and just the wanting more money for less work.
    Our son Nolan “walks the lines” for a local syrup maker right now. He had been mostly on snow shoes this year.

  • Eumaeus says:

    You had me worried on that paragraph that starts “Tommy struck me as a pragmatic guy.”

    Yes, Ben, remain “unburdened by the necessity of devoting most of [our] lives to the production, distribution, sale and servicing of labor-saving machinery” (Oh, Abbey).

    Further, it strikes me as highly unproductive to not create little dripping sounds in the woods where the sap falls into a newly emptied bucket. This is a major factor in my productive aims come sugar time.

  • NeoNoah says:

    When the crude oil is all burned ( some say sooner than later) Tommy will have more holes in things than he can imagine. Better keep some horses and some buckets close and not lose track of the old ways.

  • It is the trick of the contemporary human to know which skills are worth keeping from generation to generation and which aren’t. Knowing how to feed yourself seems like a pretty important one, how to program a VCR, not so much. A while back our neighbor had put some items for free out on the curb (we live on a street with a lot of foot traffic and stuff disappears in minutes, it’s quite convenient). I brought home a wall clock not for aesthetic purposes but because we do not have a non-digital time piece in our home. My husband had to ask because the face of the clock isn’t anything either of us would chose but when I pointed out the real purpose of giving our kid at least a fighting chance of being able to tell time he agreed. And yet, it’s still not up on the wall. Time will tell just how he figures it all out. Maybe we’ll go way back and teach him about the sun’s position in the sky even though we are mostly inside, but then I’d have to learn along with him….that might be more fun anyway.

  • wolfandiron says:

    I wanted to try our hand at sugarin’ this year but alas, we are in the Piedmont area of NC. The weather goes from freezing to hot way to quick and the window for getting sap is really short. We go through syrup like mad in our house and the real stuff cost a good deal. I’ll be better prepared for next year and hopefully scout out some decent maple trees to tap.

  • Where would we be without nostalgia, without the romantic idealisation of the (g)olden days?
    Mere empty, humanoid machines, running to keep the big consumptive machinery of today’s society moving.

  • skysled says:

    More than one way to skin a cat. Were it not for folks like Tommy and Cecile most kids would grow up never knowing the taste of real maple syrup. Machines are tools. As important as it is to know how to get the job done without them, it’s good to know when and how to use them. Nostalgia is often a luxury.

  • Etienne says:

    The old ways gave us less, the new ways give us MORE (volume at least). Perhaps then it’s not just nostalgia about the old ways themselves we are missing, perhaps we are missing a time when we all required LESS to live. American’s consume at such vast volumes that vacuuming sap from trees has somehow become a necessary extraction method? it boggles the mind when you consider it. I wonder if we all consumed less of we’d find horses and buckets the optimal way to approach production…

  • NeoNoah says:


    It is a rampant western desease, obsessive compulsive disorder!!!

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