Saturday, March 6, 2010

Sugar Month

The Ojibwe Indians called March the Sugar Month. With simple tools and birch containers they gathered unbelievable amounts of maple sap which they boiled into sugar using stones heated over fires. The sugar naturally had a lot of "impurities" but seemed to be a remarkably healthy part of their diet.

My sap collecting equipment consists of a hand drill, plastic spouts and tubing, and recycled ice cream pails. Perhaps when I retire I will get a larger evaporator, tap more trees, and collect the sap through a network of interconnect tubing, but right now 10-12 trees provide about all the sap we can handle.

Like many an enjoyable hobby, you can turn it into mind numbing work and make a small fortune out of it - provided you begin with a large fortune, but so far I have resisted the temptation.

I like to drill the holes knee-high for the simple reason that I can support the end of the drill against my leg and lean on it. Cranking a hand brace requires real effort.

The auger bit goes in about 2 inches. If the tree is a good one, the peel of wood is wet and sap starts running as soon as you pull the drill out.

Tapping in the plastic spigot.

I guess this is literally tapping trees.

Nothing like good old plastic, is there?

My sugar bush are the maple trees behind my parents house. These trees were left for shade by a Finnish farmer who was exceptional in that he didn't mind having trees near his house. Seems like most of the Finnish settlers had little use for them - when you have to clear land by hand, trees probably start seeming like enemies. The house was built in 1895 or thereabouts, I believe. These trees were already big when I was a child. I climbed some of them. This knoll was also the first "hill" I ever skied down.

Maple sap flows best when the night temperatures fall to about 20 degrees and the day temperatures rise above 40 degrees. This means you need sunny days and clear nights - which is the most pleasant weather you can imagine for working outdoors - which is one of the big reasons collecting sap is so enjoyable.

Of course we are not the only ones who enjoy the sunny weather. Our honeybees have been taking advantage of the spring weather to make their cleansing flights. They are called so because each bee will drop a load before it returns to the hive. The snow around the hives is quite yellow on a day like this.

The Sullivans came over to tap a few more trees...

Of course, tapping trees wasn't the only activity of the day.

We poured the first day's sap - about 3 gallons - into a pot and fired up the evaporator

I have read that it takes about 40 gallons of sap to produce 3 gallons of syrup. I haven't boiled sap that often or kept accurate records, but that seems to be about right. I know for a fact that it takes a lot of firewood to boil even a gallon of syrup. I will refill this pot several times until I have about 2-3 inches of syrup on the bottom. You know it is syrup when it starts to bubble into a froth that rises to near the top of the pot. I then remove the pot and do the final boiling on an electric burner -which gives me a bit more control.

My patented Snuffy Smith evaporator consists of a steel box with 3 ten inch holes (apparently it once was junction box in a large air handling system) and old galvanized bucket, a length of stovepipe, and a license plate to reduce the air intake. The thing is so ugly that it is almost beautiful. In a way it reminds me some breeds of dogs that seem to have been developed for the sole purpose of looking ugly. At any rate, my evaporator is such a cobbled together deformity that it makes me laugh whenever I look at it. Suprisingly, it actually works moderately well.

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