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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.

How to have your own elk encounter

Out See Go, by Chris Engle, contributor

My first run-in with a wild elk became a close call with an entire herd.

I was snowmobiling with family through Montmorency County about 40 or 50 miles east of Gaylord when the lead sled came to a sudden halt. My uncle shut off his machine and lifted his helmet. I pulled up alongside him and did the same.

He silently aimed his finger at a shadow lurking at the edge of the trail barely 20 yards ahead and whispered excitedly.

“Elk!” he said. “Two of them!”

Sure enough, the shadow moved into view, followed by another. Two cow elk stood broadside to us, pausing just long enough to see if we were a threat. In a few steps they were gone, disappeared into the thick aspen grove like ghosts.

But it was far from over. Twenty more cows and calves trailed behind, trotting across our path without a glance or hesitation. I swear we could feel their heavy hooves punching through the compacted snow of the groomed trail. Without a doubt, these were huge animals.

When the last one vanished into the aspens, we turned to each other and exchanged grins and nervous laughter.

Then one more animal appeared.

Before us was a massive bull, its antlers reaching up like arms of bone. It towered well above the cows and stood in the middle of the trail staring straight at us. We were in a showdown and I, a teenager on a meager Polaris 340, was certainly the underdog against the half-ton, testosterone-fueled beast.

After staring us down for an eternity of 10 or 15 seconds, the bull turned and headed off into the grove behind his harem of cows. Stunned by what just happened, my uncles and I finally started breathing again.

I remember firing up our machines and continuing down the trail as that bull watched us from a hillside.

A small elk herd as seen from a DNR spotter plane during my flight with biologists counting the animals in 2014. Photo courtesy Gaylord Herald Times' archives

A small elk herd as seen from a DNR spotter plane during my flight with biologists counting the animals in 2014. Photo courtesy Gaylord Herald Times’ archives

It would be 15 years before I saw another wild elk, despite frequent hikes through the Pigeon River Country State Forest and countless drives through Atlanta, Michigan’s official elk capital.

By no measure are elk the most elusive of animals. Moving in herds and grazing in agricultural clearings, you can’t miss elk when they’re near.

It’s their scarcity that makes them an uncommon sight – fewer than 1,000 animals live across an area covering a few hundred square miles of Northern Michigan. Compare that to whitetail deer which number well over a million across the state. That’s what makes seeing them such a treat for most people who encounter them, whether they meant to or not.

Elk bedded under a tree at the edge of a field in the winter of 2014. Photo courtesy Gaylord Herald Times' archives

Elk bedded under a tree at the edge of a field in the winter of 2014. Photo courtesy Gaylord Herald Times’ archives

To help people in search of elk, the Department of Natural Resources published an online elk-viewing guide with waypoints marked across a map of the Pigeon River Country State Forest, a 110,000-acre tract of public wilderness dead center in the core elk range.

Closest to Gaylord are viewing locations along Sturgeon Valley Road east of Vanderbilt, and Tin Shanty Road northeast of Sparr. There are 13 locations mapped.

Though the DNR says the months of September and October are best for viewing elk, winter months work too since the foliage is gone off the trees and the large, relatively dark bodies of elk stand out against snowy backdrops and agricultural clearings.

Many of the viewing areas are wildlife food plots maintained by the DNR as grazing areas for elk, deer and turkeys, and serve to help keep elk on public land and off private farms where they can cause serious damage to crops.

On that note, the DNR uses hunting as the primary method of keeping the elk population within the 500-900 range. Beyond that number, the herd pushes out into farmland and starts to cause problems, so between 200 and 300 elk are legally harvested by hunters annually — many of whom use guides to help locate the animals during the short fall hunting seasons.

Elk tourism has a strong foothold in the local economy here. When I reported on it for the Gaylord Herald Times in 2013, the manager of the Pigeon River Country State Forest estimated hundreds of visitors come to the forest each year solely to see elk. A log book in the forest headquarters had dozens of entries by folks from all across Michigan, the Midwest, and even British Columbia.

There’s an annual Elk Festival in Atlanta every September and the Chamber of Commerce there focuses much of it’s promotional budget on spreading the word about the herd.

Local farmers and hunters become guides-for-hire come hunting season, when elk hunters lucky enough to draw a license in the lottery seek scouts to improve the odds of filling their kill tags.

Of course, one doesn’t need to be a hunter to seek out or appreciate the majestic sight of a 900-pound elk. One doesn’t even need to venture out of Gaylord’s city limits.

A bull rests inside the city of Gaylord's elk enclosure, where some three dozen animals reside. Photo courtesy Gaylord Area Convention & Tourism Bureau

A bull rests inside the city of Gaylord’s elk enclosure, where some three dozen animals reside. Photo courtesy Beccy Quigley

At the end of Grandview Boulevard, east of Gobbler’s Restaurant, is a viewing area for the city’s own elk herd. A few dozen animals live in the sprawling enclosure and often wander near the fences to feed. If you want a really up-close look at these animals, this is the place.

If an adventure into the wild elk’s range of the Pigeon River Country State Forest is more your style, keep in mind most roads there are seasonal – meaning they are not plowed in winter – and there’s a chance of getting stuck. Cell phone reception is hit and miss so don’t count on AAA to bail you out.

Bring a map and GPS, food, water, warm clothes, blankets, a shovel, tow strap, plenty of gas, and emergency supplies along for the journey. Know your vehicle’s limits. A few people get lost or stranded in the Pigeon River Forest every year – don’t be one of them!

Alright, I’m starting to sound like your dad. Go have fun.

Chris Engle is an avid outdoorsman, outdoor columnist and contributor for the Gaylord Area Convention & Tourism Bureau. He can be reached at englemobile@gmail.com.