One of my favorite great lakes things to talk about is ‘sugar season’. It has the best mouth feel, you gotta try it out:
Sugar season. Sugar season. Sugar season.
Sugar season is the period of time when sugar maple sap can be collected to make syrup and other stuff. Here in the Elkhart River watershed, sugar season occurs sometime in the late January through February window, when nighttime temperatures are in the upper 20’s and daytime temps are in the mid 40’s. The freezing and thawing initiates some of the very first seasonal movements toward spring as the trees’ sugary sap climbs quickly from the roots up the trunk and into branches. Since the trees aren’t yet actively photosynthesizing, the sap is quite simple, made of mostly water and sugar. Maple syrup is made by evaporating off the water, and leaving the sugar in a tawny puddle of goooodness. Some sugar maples live in our home woods, so when my friend, Jonathon, offered to teach us how to tap a tree and make syrup, I gladly accepted.
We decided to keep this first process manageable by tapping two trees. With a hand drill, a couple spiles, a rubber mallet, and classic metal buckets with hoods, we saunter down the hill from the back door. As we reach the sugar maple, we run our fingers along the deeply furled bark and look all the way up to the tips of the tree’s branches.
“Sugar maple tree, would it be ok for us to drill a hole in you so we can get some sap for making syrup?” My daughter yells upward with her fingertips resting on the trunk. A breeze blows softly.
“Look it’s nodding, yes, it would be ok!”
We find the place at the base of the tree where the roots adjoin the trunk, selecting a spot about 3 feet off the ground. We are on the south side of the tree, because it will be warmed much more thoroughly by the sun this time of year. Jonathon begins turning the hand drill, explaining that he wants to be able to feel the bit working into the tree. I like the approach. Friction seems like good feedback.
After the hole has been drilled, I use a rubber mallet to pound the spile, as gently as possible, into the side of the tree. We hang a metal bucket from the spile to collect the sap.
pim, pim, pim.
“It’s the maple metronome,” Jonathon says as the first drops of sugar maple sap falls from the tip of the spile into the tin pail.
During the month-long collection process, we have this daily invitation to put on our boots, to walk into the woods together holding hands, to check on something real. Sugar maple trees, who have been home here for a long time, are teaching us about this place, our home. There is something new on every walk. I found myself fascinated, wondering every day about the movement in trees that we don’t see. The movement of water in our bodies and others, as the 5-gallon water jugs fill up, the transformation happening all around.
We made the first batch of syrup on the stovetop. It took a few hours to evaporate off the water. The liquid in the stainless pot darkens and thickens, slowly permeating the house with caramel and vanilla scents.
I’m hoping the finish is as obvious as Canadian people on Youtube claim it is. They all mention changing bubbles, that “ya won’t miss it, that’s fer sure”.
Yes, it’s true. Suddenly an arrangement of fine circular bubbles begins radiating from the center. I watch it for a minute or so and then remove the pot from the heat.
The girls have been asleep for awhile, but Laura and I stand in the kitchen tasting the syrup from teaspoons and describing the flavors. I have never more fully tasted maple syrup.
When the girls wake up in the morning, we make pancakes. As they cook, we do some more tasting. Emmy refers to it as “headwaters syrup”, which sticks.
“This is the most delicious headwaters syrup ever!”
Savoring flavors of our home place.