Winter Anticipation 2

‘Tis the season! The season to get excited about spring.  Maple syrup season round 2!  In eager anticipation of this monumentous season I decided to go to Montréal to buy maple syrup equipment. Julia, why wouldn’t you just buy it from somewhere around here, you ask?  I’d done my research and found that Montréal was the cheapest place I could get a bulk order of bottles and a holding tank from.  But wait, there’s more!  Montréal is where the Dominion and Grimm headquarters is, Montréal is where the dealz are, I answer!  I picked one of the worst driving days this season to go it seems, but that’s beside the point.  I borrowed my Dad’s truck and struck out for the promised land!  There were so many tools of the trade on display at Dominion and Grimm that I was like a kid in a candy shop.  I saw the Hurricane evaporator on display that can reach temperatures of 2100 degrees Farenheit (evaporates 2.7 gallons of water per minute!), I saw hulking reverse osmosis machines.  I saw a bottling machine with 4 spouts for increased efficiency.  I saw big coils of bright green and bright blue tubing.  I was blown away by the sophistication of some of the equipment.  Clearly some of that equipment was beyond the scope of my 200 tap, traditional collection operation.  Maybe some day I’ll have a need for all that jazzy equipment but not today.  I bought 20 used buckets, spiles, and cleaning equipment that will make the back-breaking clean-up in April easier.  After packing my purchases into the back of the pickup we slowly made our way back home through the storm. Crossing the city in rush hour traffic with lots of precious cargo in a snowstorm was nerve-racking.  Next time I’ll make the trip in the summer!

Improvements

As I’ve mentioned before this past maple syrup season held a big learning curve for us. We learned that we need to: hang ALL the buckets in one fell swoop, prepare for getting stuck in the mud, etc.. At the end of our maple syrup season this year one improvement needed that stood out was a more efficient way to filter the hot syrup. What we did this year was use two wooden poles to hang the felt filter from that someone had to hold aloft for the syrup to strain through while it was being poured from the evaporator. I don’t know how many of you have made maple syrup before but these filters are thick, and having thick maple syrup being poured through a thick felt filter takes a long time. To save someone from having to stand there using both hands to balance poles on the side of the evaporator (or above the finishing unit) I’m having a filter stand/mount made. Not nearly as complex as it sounds it is simply a metal frame with two feet and two arms that will easily hold the weight of the syrup being strained.

Patience is required using this method of filtering sap.  Patience, and strong arms.

Next year we will use a more efficient method than this to filter the sap.

The two human hands freed up in place of two metal feet and arms will prove invaluable for when the pan needs to be flooded because the syrup level is getting to low, or the fire needs to be stoked because the temperature is hovering just below where it needs to be, or even for when the foam is building too high and needs to be skimmed off in order for it not to boil over (which I’ve heard can be quite the mess to clean up but luckily have not experienced yet).  Bit by bit we will amend our process.

End of Season

Our maple syrup season has come to a close.  What a rush this season has been though!  From start to finish this season has kept me busy fulfilling some responsibility or another.  We had a busy Saturday April 12 boiling the last draw, then I made the decision Sunday April 13 to pull the taps.  When we got out to the bush my decision was confirmed by what I viewed in the first couple of buckets; just enough sap to cover the bottom of the bucket, not enough to justify another boil though.   Moreover, my decision to pull the taps Sunday instead of Monday was further validated by the steady downpour of rain Monday brought.  So I finished my final batch Monday, then tallied up our syrup production for this year.  Our total yield for 2014 is a whopping 70 Litres of syrup!

Now I have 150 each of buckets, spiles and lids to wash; the evaporator to scrub out; the finishing unit to scrub out; bottling equipment to clean; the collecting tank, the boiling instruments, the filters, the holding tank; all of this equipment needs to be cleaned before storing them for next year.

After buckets have been washed, we set them out to dry (or hand dry) before stowing them for next season

After buckets have been washed, we set them out to dry (or hand dry) before stowing them for next season

 

This year was a whirl-wind adventure and, while the learning curve was steep I’ve gleaned several important points for next season, including that if I try and drive across the field when it’s muddy after the thaw I will get stuck and need my neighbor to help push me out.  I’m excited for next year.  I have my eye set on a workshop or two in the coming months, that teach about maple syrup production to hobbyists, and forest management.  For now though, I’m content with finishing cleaning up and catching up on some well-needed rest.

Maple Syrup Season

It has been a unique season, I’ll say that much.  An uncharacteristically cold March, followed by what seemed to me to be a rapid spike in temperatures has not boded well for the maple syrup season here in Eastern Ontario.   With the temperature warming up so quickly, the significant snowfall we have experienced this year is now melting, quickly!  Left in the snow’s wake is mud.  Tons of mud!  Enough mud to make sap collection with a motorized vehicle not possible without getting stuck in the mud.  Back to basics for us!  Armed with an 8-gallon milk jug, two collecting pails, a sled to transport everything and the will-power of true Canadians we set out to collect as much sap as our milk jug would let us.  We headed for the furthest trees first and worked our way forward from there.  Hauling everything there was more than half the battle – we dealt with steep inclines, a tippy sled and lots of sticky mud!  We filled our jug from 30 buckets… only 110 buckets to go!  Time to trek back to the house.

At the risk of losing our sap, we opted to travel a different route back, a route with less tipping hazards.  We pulled the sled across the pasture instead of in front of the treeline.  At the ridge we carefully guided the jug of sap down the path to the front field, checking the ridge-buckets along way.  They were over half full and needed emptying too.  We had to go back to the house to get the 50 gallon holding tank and UTV, not merely an 8-gallon milk jug to collect all this sap.  Off we went, across the snowy field, taking turns pulling the sled or holding the jug upright while pushing the sled.  Whose crazy ‘let’s make maple syrup’ idea was this anyways?  I sheepishly grin and avert my gaze.

Boiling Day Preparation

Big days in maple syrup production are the boiling days.  I should preface that statement, noting that ALL days in maple syrup production are big days from the many labor-intensive duties the process requires (fuel needs to be collected, the trees need to be tapped, the sap needs to be continually collected, the equipment needs to be sterilized), but I deter.  The BIGGER days in maple syrup production are boiling days.  As can be deduced from what is described below, it takes a lot of preparation!

Boiling days typically last from 8am to 3pm or later.  On boiling days, one needs enough firewood to feed the fire in the evaporator approximately once every two minutes.  For a full day of boiling that requires a lot of wood.  To know roughly how much wood we will require let’s do bit of calculation: now, a cord of wood is defined as 12 inch pieces of wood piled 4 feet deep, by 4 feet high, by 8 feet long.  Maple syrupers say that when using dry, split hardwood, evaporator efficiency is about 25 gallons of syrup per cord; 15 gallons of syrup per cord with dry, split softwood.  We’re using some soft and some hardwood so I’ll average it out and say 20 gallons/cord.  We have bout 125 taps up that will each produce on average 20 gallons of sap over the season.  This will yield a grand total of 1875 gallons of sap (20 gal. x 125 trees = 2500 gal.).  Divide that yield by 40 (40:1 sap:syrup ratio) and you get 62.5 gallons of syrup.  Finally, divide 62.5 gallons by ~20 gallons per cord and you get 3.12 cords.   All that is to say we will need a little more than 3 cords of wood this year.  Now, all of these calculations are based on dry wood.  This means before the boiling even takes place enough damaged trees need to be cut down and cut into logs which are then split, stacked, and dried.  Drying wood takes more than a weekend, or even a month.  Drying takes about a year of sun shining down on the wood, slowly evaporating moisture from the densely packed wood fibres.

Tree Cutting

Making maple syrup is not for the faint of heart. It requires lots of work, including felling, cutting, splitting and stacking wood for fuel the following year.

This year is going to be a bit unconventional for our maple syrup production.  Since we just bought our evaporator this year, we don’t have that much stacked and dried fuel set aside specifically for burning in the evaporator.  Luckily, we have some extra that hasn’t been used to heat the house this year that we can use for evaporator fuel.  To be better prepared for next year my Dad and I have been in the bush a number of times lately, felling dead trees for fuel, cutting the wood into logs and splitting and stacking the wood to dry.

On boiling day, dry fuel wood burns furiously.  The chimney attached to the rear of the evaporator in the sugar shack rises high above the roof-line to catch the airflow of the wind.  This airflow draws the flames from the firebox of the evaporator, stretching the flames from the ‘arch’ as maple syrupers say, toward the back of the evaporator to the chimney.  Since the evaporator is so long and the fire is positioned near the front, the flames get stretched/drawn-out almost horizontally towards the chimney, to almost a metre in length at times (witnessing the power of the blaze once it gets going is awe-inducing and makes me very glad we mounted a fire extinguisher on the wall within an arms reach for if things were to go awry!).  It is this draw from the chimney that heats the length of the flue pans that sit atop the firebox and increases the efficiency of an evaporator.  If wet or green wood were to be used instead of dry wood, the crisp, roaring fire that makes an evaporator so efficient would be replaced by a smoldering, smoking mess.  Smoldering wood does not create nearly enough heat to evaporate sap into syrup, hence all the fuel preparation maple syrup requires!

Maple Bush

Maple Bush

As twilight falls, the maple bush burns a mesmerizing pink or gold color. Do not be fooled by the warm colors though: there was nothing warm about the biting temperature!

Our path winds along the side of a field, then cuts into the forest and climbs the slope of the ridge. The path curls through the trees, strategically passing by stands of maples for easier collection in the early spring when snow drifts hinder bucket brigading efforts that our traditional maple sap collection process involves. The warmer temperatures in early March certainly had us fooled – after I motivated 4 family members to help tap some trees the temperatures plummeted to lows of -20C some nights. Getting to take in views like this help make up for my over-eagerness I hope!

Spring Thaw, Maple Melt

Maple Sugarer: A person who taps maple trees to produce maple syrup and other maple flavored products.

As the days get longer and the temperature warms one can tell spring is in the air.  After a long winter of being cooped up indoors to escape the cold, many jump at the chance to enjoy the outdoors again in warmer temperatures.  The tell-tale drippings of melting snow signify a lesser known event as well – the beginning of maple syrup season.  When the temperature raises above freezing during the day and below freezing at night, sap that has been kept in safekeeping in trees’ roots starts flowing up and down the thick trunks of maple trees as Mother Nature prepares the forest for growth.

Maple sap comes from tapping trees in the springtime during that flow, or run as maple sugarers call it.  Traditionally, to tap a tree one drills into the trunk two inches and fills the hole with a spile or spout.  A bucket is hung from a hook attached to the spile.  This allows the maple sap to run out of the spile and fall into the bucket.  

Drip, plunk, drip, plunk, drip, plunk.  The sound of the forest during maple syrup season has a calming quality to it.  It is easy to be mesmerized by the sound.  However, there is little time for that since the run happens for such a short time of the year.  Whomever coined the sap flow a ‘run’ knew what they were talking about – for about 6 weeks sugarers are running around the forest in a frenzy tapping, collecting sap once, maybe twice a day and then spending a full day boiling down the sap in a sugar shack every few days until it reaches just the right density to make syrup.  

Evaporators are used often to boil down maple syrup.  Evaporators are specially made units to increase a fire’s heat efficiency, in this case to make maple syrup.  They can range anywhere from 2 to 12 feet long, depending on the size of one’s operation.  Evaporators have an arch, where the fire is started and the wood is loaded in to feed the fire.  On top of the arch are a set of pans.  These pans have flues in them, little raised inlets which increase the surface area of the pan and this is where the increased efficiency comes from – the more surface area of the pan, the faster the sap evaporates. On boiling days steam rises off the pans in clouds and comes billowing out vents at the top of sugar shacks like clouds of maple-flavored cotton candy!

When the boiling is done everyone breathes a big sigh of relief!  Until it needs to be done again, that is.  The run is a busy time indeed!