Maple sap is running.

Not just in the trees — it’s in the veins of many Mainers, young and old, who have maple syrup fever at this time of year.

My memories of “boiling down” syrup go back to the kitchen of the family farmhouse, where a cloud of steam rose above three or four pans on the old Queen Atlantic wood stove. My grandmother kept an eye on the evaporation as my father and my grandfather managed the supply of wood and sap.

I was in grade school, and I was fascinated with the whole process of tapping trees and turning the sap into a super-sweet syrup. We had a few large maple trees near the house, and my father gave me my first lesson in the “sugaring” process.

It started with drilling a hole in the tree, about as high as my father’s waist. In those days, it was done with a woodworker’s brace and bit, which goes back many centuries. It’s still the tool of choice for many backyard maple syrup operations, although battery-powered drills and modern collection methods involving long pipelines are now common.

Dad showed me how to hold the bit at a precise 90-degree angle to the tree, and how to put pressure on the brace as we turned the U-shaped handle. A curl of wood came out of the hole, and a metal spile was tapped into place. The spile — kind of a small spout — had a hook where a pail was hung to collect the slow and steady drip, drip, drip of sap.

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I remember hanging lard pails on the hooks. Today, suppliers sell special metal sap buckets with a hood to keep rainwater and snow melt out of the sap.

Year after year, my father tapped the majestic maples in our yard and — as is the case with many pursuits — the syrup season at Echo Farm grew beyond the household hobby stage to a small-scale cottage business. He turned an old garage into a “sugar house,” installing a basic barrel wood stove and running a metal flue through the roof. It was a safe distance from the barn and house.

When the sap was running, the sweet-smelling steam filled the garage. In successive years, Dad paid more attention to the scientific details and the grading of maple syrup. There was nothing fancy about the packaging. The precious syrup was sealed in Mason jars, just as it was done in my grandmother’s kitchen.

Neighbors were generous in allowing Dad to tap their trees in return for a jar or two of the golden bounty. Those trees yielded hundreds of gallons of sap over the years. Most of it was hauled to the garage on sleds. At one time, Dad experimented with running plastic piping to the base of maple groves on the hillsides.

All of these memories of maple syrup production came back clearly this past weekend when I visited several local sugarhouses participating in the 32nd annual Maine Maple Sunday. Nearly 100 producers around Maine participated, giving thousands of families a look behind the scenes. The demonstration sites ranged from small family operations with a few hundred tapped trees to commercial operations with thousands of taps and miles of plastic tubing.

At West Minot Sugar House (called “the sweetest place in town” on their sign), I enjoyed Jim Mavor’s “ten-cent tour” of their state-of-the-art process. They produce 2,500 or more gallons of syrup each spring.

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Jim, a longtime sugar maker, was excited to tell visitors that the season’s start, although late this year, had brought about something very special.

He explained how the “first boil” of the season last week had produced 56 gallons of “Vermont Fancy.”

“I feel like a kid in a candy store,” Jim said. “That’s probably the best syrup of a lifetime.” 

As my father poured the syrup that he would proudly present to neighbors who were “on shares” with him, I think he experienced that kind of thrill many times. 

Dave Sargent is a freelance writer and a native of Auburn. He can be reached by sending an email to davidsargent607@gmail.com.


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