Tapping the Maples: A Sweet , Long Overdue Harbinger of Spring

Clack, clack, clack ...

The metallic ring of a hammer pounding in a spile, or maple sugar tap, echoed through the woods Friday morning, and I held my breath for a moment.

Sure enough, a miracle: A single drop of sap grudgingly appeared on the spout. An hour or so later about a cup of the clear liquid collected in a plastic jug.

"Spring is upon us! " I cried.

"Great!" Steve Kurczy, a friend visiting from Bueonos Aires by way of Woodstock, Conn., replied.

Having endured such a relentlessly frigid winter we all need some reassurance that days of warm sunshine eventually will return. Some rely on the first sighting of a robin; others welcome crocuses and skunk cabbage poking through the snow; others await the arrival of pitchers and catchers at baseball's spring training; meteorological sticklers insist on holding out until the official vernal equinox that occurs this year precisely at 12:57 p.m. EDT March 20.

For the last several years, as loyal readers and viewers of The Day's videos may recall, my most reliable spring indicator has been sap flowing from the maples.

Historians credit Native Americans with discovering that sap can be converted to syrup by allowing it to freeze and removing the ice. Colonists later perfected the operation by boiling saps in kettles.

Though modern producers string miles of plastic tubing between tapped trees and then employ sophisticated reverse-osmosis technology and hydrometers to remove water and measure sugar content, my system hasn't evolved much from centuries-old practices: I drill holes in maples, pound in taps, collect sap in gallon jugs that hang below the spigots, and then, using a makeshift fire pit behind our house, boil the clear liquid for hours until it turns a rich brown.

Regardless of which method you use, it still takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.

I customarily tap about 20 trees and in good years have been rewarded with a gallon or so of syrup — much of which friends and I immediately consume at the fire over pancakes cooked on a cast iron skillet topped with ice cream, or, for health fanatics, over Greek yogurt.

Because this season has gotten off to such a late start I don't have high hopes for a bumper yield, but I'm hoping quality compensates for what may be lacking in quantity.

For the last several weeks I've been monitoring the outdoor thermometer closely, waiting for the right conditions to tap. You need cold nights followed by warm days, but until late in the week we've had nothing but freezing temperatures 24/7.

Steve, eager to gain insights into the maple operation, came over to help.

In past years the sap started flowing as if from a faucet, but not so this season.

"It's a leap of faith," I explained.

It's also a question of timing: You can't tap trees too soon or you'll get nothing but sawdust from the hole drilled into the tree; if you tap too late in spring maples produce bud sap that after boiling down tastes more like like Palmolive dish detergent than something you want to serve with pancakes.

I hope to start boiling in about a week.

The key is to remove just enough water to sweeten the liquid — but if you let the kettle boil too long the sap can disintegrate to ashes in a heartbeat. A couple years ago I rescued one batch just in the nick of time. It had started to carmelize and turned into a kind of maple crème brule — a feat I could never repeat in a millennium of maple syrup production.

Anyway, I'm thrilled that my spring has finally arrived. It's been a bitter winter; we all deserve something sweet.

Reader Comments

MORE BLOGS

How to Build a Stone Wall in 14,863 Easy Steps

I realized long ago that you’re never really finished building a stone wall, even after you’ve dragged and hefted into place what seemed like the final boulder, exhaled mightily and stepped back to admire your work.

Just in Time for the Holidays: Fagin's Annual Gift Catalogue for the Discerning Outdoorsman and Outdoorswoman

How often does this happen to you: You’re merrily tearing through the woods in your four-wheeler and come to what looks like a shallow stream but turns out to be a deep, water-filled ditch, so your beloved machine sinks like a stone beneath...

Arduous Autumn

In spring we crawl out of our cocoons and celebrate bursting rejuvenation; in summer we play outside from dawn to dusk; during the dark, frigid winter we hunker down like hibernating bears – which leaves fall, when we try to set aside time...

Chain Saw? We Don't Need No Stinking Chain Saw…

So, did you hear that doctors have developed a new method of performing an appendectomy without using anesthesia? It’s exactly like the old operation, except it hurts like a son of a b.

You CAN Go Home Again: A Run Through My Old West Haven Stomping Grounds

Although for decades I’ve been living in a home surrounded by trees that is heated primarily by wood stoves, and I enjoy kayaking, mountain climbing, building stone walls, growing organic vegetables and many other active outdoor pursuits,...

Utah Rocks Part II: Kayaking Down The Colorado River

Propelled by a swift current on the Colorado River earlier this month, my son, Tom, and I gazed at red rock cliffs gleaming against an azure, near cloudless sky. The rustle of aspen and cottonwoods in a gentle breeze mingled with the rush of...

Utah Rocks: Adventures Among The Arches And The Rapids (Part I)

You know how it feels when you witness something so astonishingly exquisite and surreal it literally takes your breath away, and all you can do is gasp in amazement?

Oops. I Meant To Say, Whatever You Do, NEVER Try To Pose For A Selfie With Bear Cubs While Mama Grizzly Is Watching, And Other Corrections

• Alert readers have correctly pointed out a slight flaw in my instructions for the proper rock climbing command when you have unclipped from your rope. You should loudly announce, "Rappel off," not "On rappel."...

Use It Or Lose It: Trails Disappear If Nobody Hikes Them

Nature really hates a vacuum when it comes to paths.

Plunging Through Plum Gut And Bongo Sliding Through The Race In A Kayak: Maybe There Is Such A Thing As Too Much Fun

So a rabbi and a psychiatrist are kayaking in the ocean when a giant wave crashes over them and knocks the rabbi unconscious. The psychiatrist manages to pull the rabbi ashore, where he regains consciousness.

Once Again, Pink Gloves (Plus a Clever Signal) Help Save The Day At The Josh Billings Runaground Triathlon

"On your left!" Phil Warner shouted from the bow of a tandem kayak, racing toward a buoy during the paddle leg of last Sunday’s Josh Billings Runaground Triathlon in Lenox, Mass.

It's Swallow Time Again On The Connecticut River

Early Thursday evening was a magical time to paddle on the lower Connecticut River near Lyme.