Story and photographs by JP Campbell, voiceover by Lew Williams.
Winter arrived early and stayed. Now it’s March and even in this deep freeze the longer days hint at the Spring to come.
I embrace Winter if only to maintain sanity. Life in a little old cottage on the Gatineau river can be a challenge. What lies just, just, around the corner, though, has become my favourite time of the year. The sun will be bright. Temperatures will hover above zero by noon and just dip down to freezing at night. It is sugarbush season.
Every Canadian knows Maple syrup. Commercial syrup operations are even popular tourist destinations. Eggs, pancakes, and sausages come slathered in golden sweetness. In my part of the world, West Quebec, sleigh rides and minstrels are often part of the scene. It’s a lovely little escape for my urban friends. My sugarbush season is different and the result of a challenge.
I had been given an unlabelled bottle of syrup by my friend Ian. It was dark, smooth, and the sweetness seemed simply part of the whole experience. I had to have more. Where could I get it?
“Well, if you want a supply you can come and help work in the bush” he smiled. He knew he had my attention as he sketched out a map on a napkin.
The next afternoon I was on my way. Hidden between the highway and river is a century old farm owned by Don. Around the farm are hundreds of hilly acres covered with Acer saccharum the sugar maple. My host just smiled and nodded when I introduced myself as Ian’s friend and we slowly walked ten minutes up a skido-packed trail from the farm yard to the top of a hill. Running around us and playing in the snow were several of the setters Don raises and trains. I was not going to see a typical commercial operation.
Nestled in a small clearing, picnic tables, snow shoes and pails surround the cabane à sucre. Don supervises the sugarbush as a co-op of family and friends with Ian as his lieutenant. It’s a pretty traditional setup. The surrounding trees are tapped. The sap is collected and brought back to the shack to be boiled down. In the furthest parts of the woods the pails of sap are ferried by skido and trailer. There are no gravity fed tubes running through the forest here. Don pointed to some snowshoes, handed me a pail and told me to start collecting right on the nearby hill. With a wave and a promise to return he headed off.
The trees had already been tapped. I noticed that the older trees with a substantial girth often had two taps and their buckets attached. I started to empty the buckets into my pail immediately. I was about to learn my first sugarbush lesson. If you’re collecting the liquid gold on a hillside start at the bottom and work your way up! Not only is it easier to carry the soon heavy pail it is also easier to manoeuvre with said pail on showshoes. It’s a mistake you don’t repeat.
I returned to the shack with minimal spillage sweating from my labour and from having worn too many layers of clothing. Don had returned with Ian and was waiting to add my pail to the holding tank. I promised to be back the next afternoon.
It was the next day that had me hooked. There was no sign of life at the farm or in the bush with the exception of a setter who followed me along the trail. At the cabane there was evidence of a party around the barbeque pit. Snowshoes on I slowly began emptying buckets. The sun beamed down through the branches bright and warm. Jay was called and disappeared.
I suppose I must have been twenty trees along my way when I heard a sound. I stopped. Ping. Long pause. Ping. Sap was falling into the first bucket I had emptied. It was the only sound in the woods.
I returned everyday. I stacked wood and stoked the boiler. I met my co-workers and had post-collection wine with friends. On the weekends whole families showed up and the hills were filled with the sounds of laughing children. When the season ended there was a party in the barn where everyone ate and drank and the music was live and real.
I remind myself the season is just a few weeks away. The cold snap has to end. This year I will return to collect the sap and, perhaps, have the opportunity to learn more about the boiling down process.
Come on Spring!