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Tapping the forest: Cabin fever? sweet tooth? Nostalgia? Whatever the reason, consider checking out your woodlot's sweeter side. (Woodswise).

There are usually several feet of snow on the ground at the time of the annual Town Meetings in Vermont on the first Tuesday in March. Spring could still be eight or more weeks away. Many years ago we discovered the perfect solution to "cabin fever" right in our own woodlot: sugaring.

Sugaring, or the process of making maple syrup, was the only source of sugar for native Americans and early New Englanders. During most of March and April sugaring remains a traditional rural activity in forests all across the northern two tiers of states from Minnesota to Maine and in southern Quebec and Ontario.

Our first venture into sugaring was a stove-top operation: sap boiled on the kitchen range to produce two or three quarts for our own use. This can also be an effective way to remove old kitchen wallpaper, given the amount of steam! (It takes at least 40 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup.)

We have been tapping for about 10 years now. When we decided to become a bit more professional about sugarmaking, we began by looking for a small stainless steel pan, or "evaporator," which holds the sap while it is boiled down to syrup. With that, we estimated we could process 2.000 to 3,000 gallons of sap--about 50 gallons of syrup.

That amount of syrup would require tapping about 60 healthy maple trees, each at least 12 inches in diameter 4-1/2 feet above ground. Some of the trees that were more than 20 inches in diameter would need to support two or three taps. We found enough trees in the three acres of woods around our house for a "sugarbush," as forests managed for maple sugar production are called.

We purchased our evaporator and the wood-fired, cast-iron arch on which it sits from a local Dominion and Grimm dealer. If you're gathering equipment, check with a local sugarmaker for used equipment. We bought 80 used galvanized buckets with covers and spouts (taps) from a sugarmaker who had changed from traditional buckets to plastic pipeline. You will, of course, need a sugarhouse; we converted a small shed, formerly a milk house when our place was a small dairy farm, by adding roof vents and a smokestack. If you don't have an existing structure to use as a sugarhouse, try building a simple shed or temporary shelter. Colonial sugarmakers used a heavy metal kettle over an open fire, a popular scene in Currier and Ives prints. It's romantic but inefficient and seldom satisfactory for producing high-quality syrup.

During the summer we tag selected trees, noting the number of taps each will support based on trunk diameter and healthy crown size. All our trees are sugar maple (Acer saccharum), the most productive for syrup, although several other species of maple are tapped in other parts of the nation, notably black maple (Acer nigrum) in the Lake States and Midwest.

Early in the summer we cut and split firewood for the firebox/arch; most hardwoods will need nine or 10 months to dry enough to burn efficiently. Depending on the species, a cord of finely split dry wood is usually enough to produce 20-25 gallons of syrup. A cord of aspen, for example, produces only 60 percent of the heat energy produced by the same quantity of sugar maple. Box elder or silver maple, only 75 percent. Usually we put up about five finely split cords of wood, at least three to make syrup and the rest for our wood stove-fireplace.

We are able to cut our own wood and use a small hydraulic splitter, but others may have to buy theirs from a firewood vendor at $100-$150 a cord for split green wood (128 cubic feet, which translates to a stack 4 feet-by-4 feet-by-8 feet). That means about $5 a gallon for finished syrup.

Whatever the source, the wood needs to be stacked and covered to ensure dryness. For several years we covered the stack with a plastic tarp; now we use a simple open-sided woodshed alongside the sugarhouse.

A few weeks before sugaring season starts we carefully clean the buckets that hang on the taps, the taps, the larger gathering buckets, storage tanks, and the evaporator pan with a mild cleaning solution to prevent the growth of microorganisms, which affect syrup quality. Do the same at the end of the season to make the job a bit easier the following spring. The sugarhouse is cleaned out, chipmunks evicted, and all the necessary tools and equipment gathered in anticipation of the first run of sap.

Unlike the Spring Equinox, Town Meeting Day, or the income tax deadline, there is no set date. Scientists who study such things can explain all the complex natural factors that set this annual cycle into motion, but most usually conclude it is probably "Gods will' as to the actual date the flow begins in earnest.

We follow the simple rule that when days are several degrees above freezing, usually sunny, and the nights stay well below freezing, the sap will flow. A sap run may last a few hours or days, beginning again when weather conditions are favorable. Where we live in Vermont, this could happen anytime from mid-February to late March and last well into late April or early May. It begins later at higher elevations, in colder valleys, or on north-facing slopes. The only way to be sure is to tap a tree.

So, about March 1st, the debate begins over morning coffee as to whether or not this is the day, sort of like guessing when the ice will break up on the river.

Tapping is a mix of ritual and science. We had a 90-year-old neighbor whose six "kids" would travel from all over the eastern U.S. to be there the day he tapped his first tree of the season. Our children and grandchildren seem to like it too, especially when we make "sugar-on-snow" by pouring syrup boiled to a candy-level temperature onto a cup of snow.

Tapping is a science in that the taps (metal spouts) and the 7/16-inch drill bit must be very clean. A cup of bleach in a gallon of water works well. Drill a hole about 2 inches into the tree at a slight upward slant in sound wood, not into vertical alignment with a previous year's tap hole scar. Pound in the tap/spout with a wood mallet and, if it's the right day, the clear sap will begin to drip. When you hang the galvanized bucket on the tap, the music begins. There's no sound in a woods quite like the pinging echoing from 60 buckets as the first sap begins to drip. Each bucket then gets a lid snapped into place to keep out rain, snow, and debris.

The ritual ends, and the work begins. If the run is good, the buckets will be full enough to empty by late afternoon, about two or three gallons a tree. That's a total of at least 120 gallons of sap (almost a half-ton!) that needs to be collected in larger buckets and carried to the sugar house. That means carring buckets of sap from trees to the sugar house several times a day or, if the snow isn't too deep or the roads too muddy, carrying it to a nearby woods road where we can haul it the rest of the way on a small tractor and trailer.

Large modern sugarmakers use a complex system of plastic tubes that carry sap from the tree to roadside storage tanks or directly to the sugarhouse. But they miss the music.

The intensity of each day's run and the length of the season are not very predictable, although weather forecasters, old-timers, and university Extension agents claim to know (and seldom are right). For us, the sap run lasts on and off for four to six weeks, during which time we will haul about 3,000 gallons of sap--more than 12 tons--to produce about 60 gallons of band-crafted syrup.

Once there's enough sap on hand at the sugarhouse, the evaporator arch is fired up (the "arch" is the firebox under the evaporator, a word that perhaps harkens to the days of the open fire and kettle hanging on an arch). Once the sap begins to boll it takes several hours before syrup begins to form, depending on the boiling temperature (which is affected by barometric pressure) and the sugar content of the sap, which will vary daily.

If we work carefully, with the sap no more than one inch deep in the pan, we can evaporate up to 20 gallons of sap an hour, whereas large commercial rigs may exceed 300 gallons an hour or more.

Learning to boil sap into syrup is best learned as an apprentice to an experienced sugarmaker, if only for a day or two. So Jean does our boiling, having worked with some old-timers years ago. It's a bit like learning winemaking or brewing. If you've watched an old hand at work there's less chance of ruining a batch by boding too fast and burning the lot and perhaps wrecking the evaporator, or boiling too slow and producing a low-grade dark syrup. The faster you can boil the sap into syrup the better the quality. This requires constant vigilance, which means Jean is often in the sugarhouse for 10-12 hours at a time when the sap is running well.

Despite the risk of ruin and long days, life in the sugarhouse is a joy amidst the sweet steam rising through the roof vent and the cozy warmth of the fire. For some, a beer or cup of hot tea adds to the scene. We like to finish the day with a mix of two parts warm syrup to one part Scotch.

Sugarhouse decorating is also important. We have some 300 small beer mats from England and Europe, the Magna Charta (Jean is from Northern England), and some old holiday greeting cards from friends and family stapled to the walls.

As the syrup is drawn off from the evaporator it is filtered through heavy wool-felt filters and poured into the finishing pan, a five-gallon stainless steel container heated over a propane burner.

Here the syrup is boiled carefully to attain the correct sugar density as measured with a sugar hydrometer and filtered again. It is then either stored at a cool temperature in five-gallon containers or poured directly into small containers for sale. There are hundreds of plastic, metal, or glass containers available in all shapes and sizes, from simple mason jars to the fancy glass battles with gold foil labels and caps.

The sugaring season ends about the time our daffodils are nearing bloom and trees buds are opening. Then we remove the taps from the trees and clean and store the equipment in the sugarhouse. The new syrup will be mailed off to regular customers, given to friends and relatives, donated to nonprofits for fund raising, or set aside for sale at the farmers market in the summer ahead.

Much of it will find its way onto our pancakes, waffles, and ice cream; into candy, breads, baked beans and morning coffee or just about any recipe calling for sugar, honey, or molasses. For us, sugaring is a wonderful part of our lives all year around, a special blend of hard work, good times, and lasting memories. And sometimes we even break even when it's sold.

Husband and wife Carl Reidel and Jean Richardson of North Ferrisburgh, Vermont, are consultants and professors emeriti at the University of Vermont. They write about environmental policy and forestry.
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Title Annotation:process of maple sugaring
Author:Richardson, Jean
Publication:American Forests
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2002
Previous Article:Trees as tribute.
Next Article:A good thing comes to Mount Vernon. (Clippings).

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