Moments In The Maple Grove

by Olivia Downs

Gloves: check. Boots: check. Hats, snow pants, hand knitted scarves…plus hammers, taps, and a drill: check, check, check; everything we need to start tapping. We gather in our usual kerfuffle by the door, exchanging apprehensive glances before we plunge into the bitterly cold North Country air.

The chilly wind whips our hair and bites our noses as we crunch through the snow and slush toward the maple grove. We sing rounds at the top of our lungs to take our minds off the cold, laughing all the way. Our homesteader, Ben, trails a ways behind the rest of us. As the distance between us closes, an idea hatches. We slow our pace, wait for him to catch up, and at the opportune moment…we strike. Six people turn around and begin doing the Bernie dance (from the movie Weekend at Bernie’s; an imitation of a flailing dead man trying to walk) in the middle of a field.

Once we get all of our silliness out of our systems (well, maybe not all) we’re ready to get down to business. We reach the forest where all of the maple trees had been helpfully tagged the day before (by us) with bright yellow tape and buckets lying in wait underneath. All trees do actually have sap, but not all saps are edible. Maple sap is high in sucrose which makes it so sweet and tasty. Birch trees also produce edible sap, but it is less sweet than maple and grows in harshly cold climates such as Canada and Alaska.  The Sumac family of plants and trees—the most common of which are poison oak and poison ivy—produce sap that is poisonous and can cause itchy and irritable skin reactions.

While tapping, we each have a specific job. Jake is on drill duty and hops from maple to maple creating holes for the taps about an inch deep. You don’t want the hole to be too deep because the sap doesn’t flow through the hardwood; you also don’t want the hole to be too shallow or it won’t reach the sap at all. Others hammer the small, metal taps into the holes and hang the buckets on the hooks attached to the taps. The rest follow with tent-like lids to slide onto the tops of the buckets so that they are safe from rain and snow. It sounds like a lot of work, but we continue to sing rounds and joke and laugh throughout the process and none of us want to go back inside by the time we’re finished.

Our system is quite a bit different from that in the sugar bush at CCE (Cornell Cooperative Extention), which we had helped with the week before. There, tubes snake in and around the trees allowing sap to flow in the same place all at once. We had sliced off old taps on the ends of the drop lines and squeezed new ones on using an ancient and slightly terrifying contraption. It involved hooking in the tube on one side, the tap on the other, and squeezing them together. …It’s not as easy as it sounds. But it needed to be done since the newer taps were more efficient, which would allow for more sap flow! Each tappable maple (of which there were hundreds) contained several drop lines and one lateral line that connected to the main line at the end of which the sap would empty into a large receptacle.

Our buckets are not quite as fancy, but we maintain that they are more picturesque. And collecting the sap, though now on our daily chores list, doesn’t feel like a chore. It’s really satisfying to lift the buckets and feel the weight of the sap inside and to see the fruits of our efforts as we dump the watery substance into the tank. It’s what sustainability is all about. Instead of buying a gallon of maple syrup that has to be processed and shipped before it hits the shelves at Price Chopper, we are making our own product using the resources available to us. 

Last Sunday, the sap finally began to flow. That night, as a treat, Ben surprised us with a huge pot of steaming sap. It tasted like sweet nectar of the Gods, brought to us by our own handiwork. The rest of the sap will be sent to CCE to be boiled. The first time we pour our own maple syrup on some squash pancakes will be the sweetest treat by far. 

Happy tapping!

- Zelie Wright-Neil and Olivia Downs