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

In Waning Winter, An 'Above Par' Snow-Kayaking Adventure

With snow cover stubbornly lingering and whitewater kayaking season still more than a month away, what’s an impatient paddler to do? Easy: Snow-kayaking.

What Snow and Ice? The Maple Sap Is Running!

Every year about this time, after having spent the past few months shoveling tons of snow from the driveway, lugging tons of firewood from the shed, getting out of bed dozens of times at 3 a.m. to stoke the stove, hauling countless buckets of...

Finally! A Worthy Snowstorm -- Maybe Even a Bombogenesis!

Just when we winter worshipers had resigned ourselves to another snowless season, and only a day after the temperature climbed ridiculously into the 60s, our prayers have been answered not just by an ordinary storm but by a meteorological...

Animal Tracks in the Snow: They All Tell a Story

If you thought most forest animals hibernated in winter, or at least slept through the night, take a stroll through the woods the morning after a snowfall.

What Does the Fox Say? Yip-yip-yip! Chance Encounters With Creatures Great and Small

While I lugged logs from the woodshed the other morning a yip-yip-yip! pierced the still air. First reaction: Did the neighbors get a dog? No, they were out of town for a few days. Yip-yip-yip!

Ringling Bros., SeaWorld and the Columbus Zoo: Pitfalls of Keeping Elephants, Orcas and Gorillas in Captivity

Large, wild animals belong in the wild, not in a circus, aquarium or zoo – a point reinforced by events involving three prominent, unrelated institutions in the last couple weeks.

Our Debt of Gratitude to President Obama, the Environmentalist-in-Chief

As we prepare to inaugurate a president who has repeatedly called climate change a "hoax," appointed as Environmental Protection Agency administrator an Oklahoma attorney general who is suing that agency, named the CEO of ExxonMobil as secretary...

Call of the Wild: A Clash Over Cellphones in The Great Outdoors

"Yeah, I’m standing on the summit now! … The view is incredible – I can’t believe I’m getting a signal up here!"

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year: Plunging into Icy Fishers Island Sound at the Annual New Year's Day Run-Swim

Look, I’m not going to lie: While some longtime participants in one of southeastern Connecticut’s most enduring, challenging and madcap traditions insist that plunging into icy water after a run on Jan. 1 is a refreshing and...

No Such Thing as Too Much Fun: A Great 2016; Hopes for an Even Better 2017

When it comes to adventurous fun my philosophy has always been too much is never enough, so when I look back at the highlights of the past 12 months, as I typically do when the calendar is about to flip, I can honestly say that 2016 was a...

Hey, Has Anybody Else Noticed It's Gotten A Little Chilly?

I guess I first realized the temperature had dropped a few degrees when I went out for a 5-mile run this morning and noticed that my eyelids had started to freeze shut, which loyal readers will recognize as Level IV on the Fagin Frigidity Index,...

Granola Munchers Vs. Snickers Gobblers: Conflict Over Plans for a Hotel on New Hampshire's Mount Washington

The first time friends and I trudged up New Hampshire’s Mount Washington in winter the frozen peak might as well have been Antarctica – hurricane-force winds and blinding snow battered us, the only climbers that day atop the highest...

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.