“The sap dam suddenly burst,” my friend Bruce wrote at 5:30 a.m. on April 13. “In the near-freezing temps we collected nearly 400 gallons. Going to start boiling shortly…I will be out there somewhere.”
Bruce comes in to his native state of Minnesota from Alaska, where he lives now, every-other spring for maple sugar bush. This spring he arrived on his family’s home place at the beginning of March and thought he’d be back in Alaska by now. But you can’t rush the maples and you can’t slow them down. Every year is different.
Our family on the south end of Pine County never tapped maples. We didn’t have many on our farm. Bruce’s family farm on the north end of Chisago County has a big stand of maples that he started tapping in high school. Bruce was the kid who always came to show-and-tell in first grade with stories and artifacts from outdoor adventures. He brought such interesting objects into class that he is probably the one who made me think of bringing a dormant beehive when my turn came. (You can guess how that turned out.) By the time Bruce started tapping maple trees, our class was well beyond show-and-tell, so not many of us knew what he was up to every March and April. I certainly didn’t.
I got to stop by twice this year. The first time, everything was ready—trees tapped, buckets hung, and no sap whatsoever. Winter just hung on. The second time was after the “sap dam” broke. All 300 buckets were filling as fast as Bruce and his parents, Loring and Marlys, could drive the Farmall H around the woods and collect the sap, clear as water, then deliver it to the big tank outside the little green A-frame boiling shed.
On Saturday when I arrived, steam was billowing out of the shed. A couple years ago Bruce installed an Amish-made, wood-burning boiling pan, a wonder of physics, that takes in the sap through a series of containers and hoses, boils off the water, and yields syrup in a fraction of the time it used to take. No more sleeping overnight in the boiling shed to add wood to the furnace every two hours.
When I stood next to the boiling pan on Saturday, the rolling sap still smelled like trees. By the time I left, the aroma was shifting to the more intense sweetness of the syrup it would become. There can be no break in concentration—the syrup point is reached in a few brief minutes or even seconds, and a whole batch could burn and be destroyed if the maker’s attention has strayed.
Fifty miles south of the Nelson farm, in a northern suburb of Minneapolis and St. Paul, my pastor taps six maple trees in his back yard. Doug has been doing this for quite a few years now. He lets people know when he is going to boil a batch and invites us over to sit with him.
“Anyone who wants to watch the process, come on over,” he wrote in his weekly email on March 25. “Singing and dancing around the boiling pot is not necessary, but it is encouraged.” You might hear one of his daughters practicing cello out in the yard or singing with friends who drop in. Doug might be working on a sermon or playing guitar. You just sit around watching and smelling the sap and the spring.
In North Country: The Making of Minnesota (University of Minnesota Press, 2010), there is a beautiful plate, Indian Sugar Camp, ca. 1845, by Seth Eastman, that shows American Indian women at work in a maple sugaring camp. Researcher Kirsten Delegard describes the practice and context so beautifully. On Bruce’s family farm east of Rush City and west of the St. Croix River, they had heard stories and found evidence of such a camp that inspired Bruce to learn from the trees.
Thanks to the Nelsons, and to Pastor Doug Donley, for orienting the wheel of their years toward the maple trees. I am blessed in spring, no matter how long the snow remains.