Canterbury - The trees that line the snow-enveloped fields by the Quinebaug River are beautifully bare, warmed from the reflection of the sun off the ground.
When Tony Denning looks at them, he sees a crop.
Denning, who grew up walking in the woods, can pick out the maples in a glance, mapping out in his mind how he'll extend his maze of tubing to these virgin trees and extract their sap.
"That's liquid gold leaking from the trees," Denning says.
Two years ago, Denning was spending some time with his 15-year-old twin boys when they decided to make some maple syrup - something he hadn't done since he was a kid. They stayed up until the early morning hours collecting sap in buckets and cooking it on the porch in a deep fryer.
Denning soon realized he couldn't stop. He wanted to make more batches, tap more trees. He built a sugar house, until he realized it was too small. Laid off from a job in construction, Denning suddenly had found himself a new job.
"I don't know what it is," Denning says. "It kind of reminds me of snow because you get that one little drip and it's nothing... but they're like snowflakes because it's innocent until they all start ganging up on you. And before you know it you've got thousands of gallons and it's just like you've got 2 feet of snow."
The trees' story
Denning, who runs Maple Leaf Farm with his wife, Lynne, started with 400 taps, and has expanded to some 1,300 on his property off Route 169 and on the river-side land a short drive away.
Denning turns down a muddy dirt road to check on his operation there, a property he rents. He looks wistfully at a huge maple, almost 14 feet around, he guesses, that remains untapped.
"There's a story behind that tree," he says. The property owner, who turned down various loggers who had eyed the land, had only one condition for Denning's planned sugar bush: that tree was off
"That's the mother tree," the owner told him. "It made all the other trees."
You have to be respectful of nature in Denning's business. Unpredictable weather determines when - or if - the sap runs. Ideally, it should be 20 degrees or less at night and 40 degrees during the day, a freezing and thawing cycle that helps the sap flow. Windy days are usually bad for flow, Denning says, and spring's arrival in April usually heralds the season's end.
"As soon as you see that bud on (the trees), you're done," he says.
It takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. Last year was one of the worst in years for maple syrup production, Denning says. It stayed warm at night, so the trees wrung themselves out and didn't go dormant to recoup.
Simple operations rely on gravity, but Denning uses a vacuum pump to draw the sap from the trees. He drills a hole, attaches a tap, and connects it with tubing to a main vacuum line with plastic connectors. In the quiet woods, you can hear the whoosh of clear sap pulsing through the lines.
The sap goes into a 1,000-gallon stainless steel tank. Inside the sugar house, which Denning built himself, a machine uses reverse osmosis to remove the water from the sap, squeezing its sugar concentration from about 2 percent to 8 to 10 percent, before going through an evaporator. It runs through a series of pans as it boils to a temperature of 219 degrees.
Denning and Andy Burroughs, a local farmer who helps with production, shine a flashlight into the steam coming off the syrup, checking out the size of the bubbles as the syrup snakes its way along.
When it first emerges from the boiling process, the syrup is extra sweet, kind of like butterscotch, as Denning describes it, offering samples in Dixie cups like shots of sugar. It's also a bit cloudy, but once it passes through the filter, the stuff turns clear and gains its trademark syrup flavor.
The Dennings sell their syrup out of the original sugar house that was converted into a store, where a wood stove runs, and jellies and relishes, candles, and candy fill the shelves.
Lynne Denning keeps chickens and geese, grows pumpkins and corn in the fall, and hopes to eventually open a commercial kitchen so she can sell pies and cakes.