Food and Health Archive


When Bucket Lists Hung on Trees: A Maple Syruping Flashback

Thursday, February 18th, 2010

I’ve got a new book in progress that casts a bittersweet eye back on the good old back-to-the-land Seventies… it was a lot like now (economic smashup) but the pot was cheap… here’s a brief look.

I’d never done any big time maple syruping before Nate came along. A couple of times I’d tapped a few trees and boiled off a quart on the kitchen stove. Once Sugar helped me make some maple candy in an open pan outside, over a wood fire.

Then Nate called and asked for help. “I’ll trade syrup for your time,” he offered.

That sounded okay. I was between carpentry jobs, and with syrup at twenty bucks a gallon, I figured what I didn’t need for the house I’d sell. Nate had a big operation inherited from his dad. We started out early in March aboard Nate’s sled, drawn by two old chestnut Belgians, Dolly and Marge. They were a beautiful matched pair, and strong.

The sled was loaded with buckets and spouts. We drove up to the sugarbush and jumped off into the snow. It was crusty and deep underneath. Nate took the bar and chain off an old Homelite and mounted a 7/16 inch bit. The chain saw screeched and smoked, but it sure beat a brace and bit. We had a thousand buckets to hang.

The smaller maples took a single tap, the bigger ones, two or three. We’d work through the snow from tree to tree, Nate drilling, while I followed after with spouts and buckets. I’d gently tap a spout into the hole and hook on a bucket. Dolly and Marge followed along. Nate didn’t have to drive them at all. The horses knew the trails, and when Nate clicked his tongue they’d catch right up.

“You ever have a question, ask them horses,” Nate said. “They’ve been sugaring longer than me.”

Nate tossed me a beer. He drank Black Label. Nobody’s perfect. He carried his bottle in his back pocket. I tried it but the beer sloshed over. Nate’s did too, but he didn’t mind.

Nate was a lineman for Green Mountain Power so we didn’t get back to the sugarbush until the next weekend. The sun had come out hot during the week, and there’d been a good run. But the weather turned cold again and I had to break slabs of ice out of every bucket. Icicle pies, Nate called them. Nate stayed back at the sugarhouse boiling while I drove the horses out for sap. Now that I was hauling full buckets to the tank, every stumble in the snow meant a soaking.

In the sugarhouse Nate would cook up a bunch of eggs in the boiling sap and we’d sit around the evaporator and eat hard boiled eggs and hot dogs roasted on a stick in the fire. Nate kept the arch red hot and the place swirled up with sweet steam and whenever the syrup was ready he’d run some off.

We had to boil the syrup while it was fresh, otherwise it would spoil. So we’d be up all night boiling and drinking and Nate would tell his sugaring stories. He’d been sugaring since he was a kid. Delwin, his dad, built the sugarhouse. It was the biggest in town. Now that Delwin was dead, Nate had inherited the operation.

“We had a hell of a year once,” Nate said. “I was about seven I guess.” He slouched down on the old blue swayback couch by the wood pile and swigged some beer. “We started getting good runs of sap around Town Meeting day and it just kept coming and coming. Cold nights, sunny days, and a river of sap. After three weeks, father burned up all the wood.”

Nate stood up. He stoked the fire and threw in some more wood. He slammed the firebox door tight and sat down. The fire roared and you could hear the sap start to bubble again.

“So, father said he was dammed if he’d throw all that good sap in the snow. The problem was, there wasn’t any more wood, only what we’d stacked in the shed by the house. And that was for the furnace in the house. Remember, it’s March and there’s plenty of cold weather still coming. So father takes the sled down to the house and starts tearing into the stovewood. It didn’t take mother long to see what was happening. She comes out hollering. ‘No! Stop! Leave that furnace wood be! Don’t burn up my wood for syrup!’

“Father shouted, ‘To hell with the stovewood!’ He told her he was going to make that syrup and buy himself a pair of new horses. Mother ran and got the shotgun. ‘Over my dead body!’ she yelled. Father just laughed and kept piling the wood on the sled. That was when mother gave up. It must have been coming for a long time, and I guess it was a relief because he was a tough guy to live with. I didn’t know what side I was on, but Mother grabbed me and took off for her sister’s place.”

I got up and checked the syrup pan. I didn’t want to burn it.

“So that’s when they split up?”

“That was it. She never went near the house again. Father made the syrup and he slept right here. He brought this couch up from the house to sleep on. And those horses out there, he bought them with the syrup money. He raised them up from colts. Dolly is named for my sister.”

“And Marge?”

“I asked Father but he wouldn’t say. He just winked.”

The next day we were still going strong. “Stoke the fire,” Nate said. “I’ll take the sled out and gather.”

“Sure,” I said. “Soon as I finish this run. If you get time, stop off at the truck and grab some beer.”

Nate swung the horses up the hill and I stepped back inside the sugar house. I stood by the steaming evaporator and watched the maple syrup hydrometer. Clouds of vaporizing sap filled the sugar house. The fire roared and the pans shook and the thickening syrup bubbled under a creamy froth.

I put on one of the heavy asbestos gloves and twisted the syrup faucet and turned up the flow. A stream of sweet steaming amber fluid poured into the syrup bucket. I glanced at the syrup pan. Most of it had come off. The silver thermometer sank below the syrup line and I closed off the tap. I lifted the filter to check the bucket. Not quite a gallon.

I picked up the iron bar in front of the arch and pried open the right door. The fire flared out and the heat pushed me back. I pulled down the brim of my hat and jabbed the bar into the pile of flaming logs. After a good shake the logs settled and the red coals fell in a shower of sparks between the white hot grates. Then I swung around from the fire and started grabbing firewood from the pile behind.

The logs slid into the fire like bullets into a rifle. I used the iron bar to swing the door back and slam it shut and then I opened the left door. Again the flames roared out but I jabbed back. After the arch was loaded I pushed the door shut and watched the thick bubbles subside to a simmer. It would be a few minutes before the new charge of wood fired up and another wave of syrup thickened enough to pour off.

I tossed my hat back on the wood pile and wiped the sweat out of my eyes. The syrup wasn’t coming off fast enough. I wanted to see a stream of syrup as thick as my thumb. Steady, all day long. Fifty, sixty gallons. Today we’d be lucky to make ten. Spring was coming, the trees closing up the sap holes and budding out. After a long winter it seemed crazy to wish for more cold but that’s what I was doing.

I listened for the horses.

Then I opened the door and climbed the ladder to the top of the sap tank and looked over the edge. The tank was empty! I jumped down and crawled under the tank. The gravel tore at my elbows all the way back to the main feed tube. A couple of feet out past the tank the sap was squirting through a couple of holes in the plastic.

Mice.

I scrambled out and ran back into the sugar house. The sap was boiling hard again. The chimney thundered. I checked the inflow.

Nothing.

I jammed down the gate valve and prayed. A thin trickle of sap dribbled into the evaporator. Then it dried up. With a full charge of wood coming on, there was no sap. In a few minutes another run of syrup would be ready to come off and there’d be no sap to replace it. The pans would scorch and burn. If they melted, the whole place would go up.

I put on the asbestos gloves and picked up the iron bar and opened both fire doors. It was like looking into the gates of hell. I grabbed the end of a blazing log and yanked it backwards out of the arch. I dragged the flaming stick outside and threw it in the snow. With a whopping big hiss fiery orange sparks exploded around me. Then I ran back inside and went after the wood again. I smelled burning hair. My beard flared up. I spun around and slapped it out. I felt my face. My beard was a dirty stinking stubble. I ran over to the canning sink and splashed my face with the greasy rinse water and ran back and began to yank some more logs out of the fire. I dragged the flaming sticks outside, and went after the wood again. Somehow I got all the flaming logs outside. The charred logs lay on the snow hissing and smoking. I ran back inside and raked up the coals and shoveled them into a garbage can and hauled it outside by the scorched firewood.

I shook the ashes out of my hair and sat down in the snow.

I took a deep breath. Harness bells echoed down the hill.

I sure hoped Nate had the beer.