Article and photography by JP Campbell
In West Quebec it’s not unusual to mark the true beginning of Spring as the day the sap begins to run. This year it was March 31st. Immediately the core crew at the sugarbush were called to action.
First the trees must be tapped. In preparation snowmobile trails are made through the ‘main routes’ across the bush. The tappers branch off from these to prepare the trees. The Maples selected are at least 8” in diameter. In our location, a crew of two crosses the hills on snowshoes. The first member has a drill with a 7/16ths bit and drills at least one hole 2 1/2” deep on the sunny side of the tree. The second follows behind. He or she will sterilize each tap then hammer it in the and attach the pail and cover. The cover gives the pail protection from fragile winter bark and, god
forbid, rain. With the easiest areas, tapped collection can begin and the tappers head to more distant or difficult terrain. Our crew chief Don, believes we’ve tapped 450 trees this season and is already talking about more next year!
The crew has so far avoided modern commercial collection. There are no plastic tubes here. Collecting by hand is great exercise, puts one in touch with the silence of the forest and adds additional pride in the final product. That being said this year’s snow conditions give one pause. The snow is like slush four feet deep. Hills are crossed and the sap is emptied into pails. Even with snowshoes you are
going to go in up to a hip. I say hip because, without notice, it’s always one leg that goes down and even as you fall the only thought is not to lose a drop of the precious sap. The merits of commercial methods is obvious but I’ve joined a stubborn bunch.
In remote areas, the buckets are emptied into barrels for collection by snowmobile and trailer. Close to the sugarshack you’re on your own and must carry the buckets back. At the shack the sap is poured through a double filter into a large barrel. From there it will be pumped up behind the shack into a covered holding tank. At this point gravity feeds it inside to the evaporator.
If you haven’t picked up on it yet, this operation is pretty ‘old school’. The evaporator is, of course, wood fired and that demands care. Cut wood must be available. The furnace must be fed and fed properly. The boiling sap must be monitored. A good boil is required but, imagine your kitchen stove, you do not want dozens of gallons of sticky fluid boiling over. The experienced eye of the crew chief is never far away, which is a good thing. The crew chief will also grade the final product. Based on colour and then viscosity this is something that I have yet to take part in. The season is still young.
The final part of the process is the bottling. This will be familiar to anyone who’s canned or made wine. The keys here are proper sterilization and a good tight seal.
I am sure I have left out so much that I already take for granted. I am exhausted and will return to the bush, with luck, everyday until the end of the season. Forgive me.
At the same time I encourage everyone with access to maples to make their own syrup if only in your own kitchen. It can be a fun family project and I can also say one of the very best syrups I tasted last year was homemade.
Thanks to the crew: Donald, Ian, Roseanne and the dozens of others who help out.