As kids we had both had the experience of making maple syrup and shared fond memories of it. The old sugar house still stood strong on Straw Hill and seeing it was a reminder of late nights, sweet treats, and boiling eggs and hot dogs in the hot sap for the constant stream of visitors coming to check out the operation, offering their wisdom, and telling tales of all sorts. I would often sit in the corner, perched up on a stool, and watch and listen far past my bedtime.
For Tim, he and his brother had tapped some trees all by themselves and boiled in an open pan in the front yard. They would feed the fire with chunks of wood in their handmade arch and watch the water evaporate off in a large cloud of steam. When the sap was close to the density of syrup, they would finish it off in a pot on the stove in their mother’s kitchen. If you have ever boiled syrup in your kitchen, you know what a sticky, steamy mess that can be.
Making maple syrup is laden with traditions. It dates back to our ancestors and has been done in this part of the world for centuries. Walking through old woods, you can often find the faint remnants of old sugaring operations. Small, perfectly round holes still visible in the bark of large maples, trees so large that you can’t fit your arms around them. A rusty rim of a bucket peeking through the earth, buried by the composition of organic material over time. And in younger woods, you can even find pieces that were left behind and forgotten of the first purple and green lines that were used when operations switched from the traditional buckets to more modern plastic tubing. (Our children call these “Ancient Lines” and are as excited as if they had just discovered the leprechaun’s gold at the end of the rainbow when they find them in the woods.)
There are a few of those older traditions that we still stick to in our much more modern operation of today. To test the density of the syrup, it’s always good to pour it off the end of a ladle and see if it sheets, despite how many other measuring tools you may have at your disposal. We still throw in a few metal buckets for the kids to pick up on their collection route. As they gather the buckets, they taste the cold, crisp sap. And we fuel our arch with wood, dried and aged to perfection to create just the right amount of heat. It’s a bit of a labor of love, but the taste is worth it in the end, because yes, I think it has a better taste.