“Maple Syrup”

I remember

coming to the farm in March

in sugaring time, as a small boy.

He carried the pails of sap, sixteen-quart

buckets, dangling from each end

of a wooden yoke

that lay across his shoulders, and emptied them

into a vat in the saphouse

where fire burned day and night

for a week.

— Poet Donald Hall

The man who bought my log home in Hampden, along with 20 acres of woodland, must like to rub it in. He’s my nephew, and inclined to be a hunter/gatherer, of the serious kind — like I once was. When I lived there, our family made the most of the land. We grew vegetables, bagged deer, grouse and turkey, picked fiddleheads and wild berries, caught trout and cut firewood. We did it all. Or, at least, we thought we did it all.

Alas, come to find out we missed out on one of God’s greatest gifts to the true gatherer: maple syrup! Every year about this time my nephew sends me an emailed photo of a bubbling cauldron of sap being boiled down in back of my old place. He probably isn’t intending to rub it in, only demonstrate to his uncle that the beat goes on, that the next-generation folks who took over the Ponderosa appreciate its natural attributes and are simply carrying on the tradition.

Good for him. Still, I ask myself. “ How did I overlook the spring sap run? All those years, I could have tapped those maples myself and never did so. I knew the routine, having made home-brew maple syrup at my previous homestead in Winterport. Back then, when our kids were young, it was a family undertaking. We boiled that sap over an open fire in a big seafood cooker. The syrup was good, although, as I recall, it always had a wincing wood-smoked tang to it.

Making syrup from the sap of a maple tree is a New England tradition that goes way back. Word is that early pilgrims learned the process from Native Americans. If you have access to a few big maple trees, and have never tried making syrup, I encourage you to do so. We used to buy the galvanized taps at the hardware store. This time of year, when the sap starts to run, simply tap the tree, hang a big bucket on the tap and wait for nature to fill it up with sap. The process takes some patience; it takes a lot of sap boiled down to make a small amount of pure maple syrup. That may explain why a store-bought pint of maple syrup is almost as expensive as a pint of 10-year old whiskey. It’s much better for you, though. The maple syrup, that is.

Speaking of pricy old nectar, did you know that you can actually purchase vintage maple syrup that was bottled in the 1920s?

If past is prologue, my nephew will give me a small bottle of his Ponderosa maple syrup. We will treasure it. Not only will it wind up on Diane’s incomparable oatmeal-buttermilk pancakes, but in our tea as a welcome substitute for all those dreadful ersatz sugar substitutes like Splenda, Truvia, etc. If I were to go ice-fishing in late March, which is unlikely in the Florida Keys, I might, after a cold day on the wind-swept ice, concoct a convivial confection called a Green Mountain ( one part branch water, one part whiskey and one part maple syrup).

Yes, it’s been a long winter for folks in New England, but the sap is running and, with its flow, hope for the annual renewal. Here’s to sugaring time.


The author is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. He is also a Maine Guide, co-host of a weekly radio program “Maine Outdoors” heard Sundays at 7 p.m. on The Voice of Maine News-Talk Network (WVOM-FM 103.9, WQVM-FM 101.3) and former information officer for the Maine Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. His e-mail address is [email protected] . He has two books “A Maine Deer Hunter’s Logbook” and his latest, “Backtrack.” Online information is available at www.maineoutdoorpublications.com.

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