Tag Archives: sugar

Tapping into springtime

Out See Go
By Chris Engle, contributor

Songbirds whistled in the crowns of maple trees yesterday to the tune of cordless drills cutting holes into the trunks below.

The morning’s labor marked the beginning of spring for Ivan Witt (pictured above), a maple-syrup maker who draws his raw material – thousands of gallons of crystal-clear sap – from hundreds of trees on a hilly, 10-acre lease north of Gaylord.

Within the forest is a sprawling network of tubes and hoses that spider through the trees like frozen lightning bolts. Each tree within reach of the web will be tapped for its subtly sweet sap. Some trees will get two or three holes, depending on their size, with each one connected to the sap superhighway.

A plastic spile is hammered into a small hole in a maple tree, allowing sap to flow through into a tube and, eventually, to a collection tank. Photo by Chris Engle

A plastic spile is hammered into a small hole in a maple tree, allowing sap to flow through into a tube and, eventually, to a collection tank. Photo by Chris Engle

In between my writing projects last fall and winter, Witt hired me to shore up this infrastructure in the “sugar bush” as he calls it. Much of the weathered tubing needed to be replaced and stowed high enough above the snow pack to keep from being iced in when tapping time came.

Smaller, more traditional maple-syrup operations rely on buckets to catch sap as it drips from spigots on the trees. It’s a lot of work hauling gallons of sap out of the bush this way and, since a bucket can go from empty to full in a single day, this method forces you to work fast to keep from losing sap. Witt’s operation is too big to work this way.

A sap-cicle forms at the end of a broken maple branch where sap has dripped out and frozen. They're a sweet treat when you can reach them. Photo by Chris Engle

A sap-cicle forms at the end of a broken maple branch where sap has dripped out and frozen. They’re a sweet treat when you can reach them. Photo by Chris Engle

Instead, his system relies almost entirely on gravity.

This time of year, as below-freezing nights give way to above-freezing days, trees start pumping stores of sugar from their roots to their bud-lined branches. It’s this sugar that will power the buds as they burst with new leaves and flowers.

Each tap in a tree steals a tiny fraction of that sugar and sends it into the tube. As the sap flows downhill it’s joined by sap from other trees, merging into the network like cars on a freeway onramp. The tubes get bigger and busier as they continue downhill, sometimes skirting the ground or passing over valleys along the way, but all the time maintaining a downward angle.

At the very end is a giant collection tank and the sap empties in like a water slide into a pool. A pump provides an occasional vacuum boost to keep things moving.

A small section of the network of tubing used to link trees together and collect their sap using gravity. Photo by Chris Engle

A small section of the network of tubing used to link trees together and collect their sap using gravity. Photo by Chris Engle

None of this happens without first putting holes in the trees.

Equipped with a power drill and a fresh, sharp 5/16-inch bit, I made my way through the bush with a handful of other guys, stopping at each tree and drilling the requisite holes. Each tap has to go in just right, avoiding circular scars from previous taps and angling the hose for the proper downward angle. Putting taps in the warmer, south-facing side of the tree means sap will flow longer each day.

In a few days, when the collection tank is full, Witt will roll in with his pickup truck and an onboard tank to haul away sap to the sugar shack, the business end of the whole operation. It’s there that the water will be boiled off by the intense heat of a wood-fueled fire, leaving behind the golden-brown delicacy we know and love as maple syrup.

I spent a couple hours tapping trees that morning and got a text from Witt later that evening.

“We finished! Hallelujah!” he said about the tedious task of tapping hundreds of trees. “Do you want syrup in payment or cash?”

That’s an easy answer.

Next up: See what it takes for Witt to turn 12 gallons of sap into a single quart of succulent maple syrup. Chris Engle is an outdoorsman, freelance writer and house dad in Hayes Township, Otsego County. He can be reached at englemobile@gmail.com.