Mar 10, 2016

Sapping

We drive a ways into the desolate Upper Peninsula woods, appreciating the brilliant green of the coniferous trees, the remaining snow beginning to melt and trickle down the dirt road, and the sweet smell of the warm breeze. To most of us this is a sign of spring, to others, it means the season of sapping.

We enter a logging road and drive about a mile into the camp. We see Tim, my Aunt Amy’s boyfriend, hurriedly approach us with a broad grin spread across his face. Mind you he is a 6’6” modern day lumberjack carrying two 5-gallon buckets with sap sloshing over the edges, gallantly trotting through the woods. It takes me a moment to realize that his exuberance is not about introducing us to the culture of sapping, but rather to embrace my Aunt Amy in his big arms. After this slight disappointment, his beast of a dog, Blaze, a 145-pound Alaskan Malamute,  renders me with the warm welcome I had expected from Tim. Unfortunately, for me, Blaze greets just like Tim, Aunt Amy and I are completely covered in slobber and mud.

 

After we clean ourselves up, we begin.  Our first job is to fill the buckets with sap.  Expecting a gooey sticky mess of sugary dark syrup, I was shocked to see the metal buckets filled with a clear liquid. My dad, Aunt, and I, curious beyond belief sneakily stuck our fingers in the buckets to taste the sap.  Surprisingly, the clear liquid tasted like sugar water. Each maple tree, specifically picked, had a spigot and hose that drained the sap of the tree into the metal pail. It was our job to then empty the sap into our 5-gallon buckets. Each tree had a nature of its own, filling the metal buckets anywhere from ten to eighty percent full. It felt almost like a treasure hunt.  Which tree would be the jackpot?  Tim explained that one tree, the Black Betty was the moneymaker. To emphasize his point he drilled a hole into the side of the trunk making another tap to withdraw even more sap from the beast.

 

 As the 5-gallon buckets filled, we poured them into a classic, jury-rigged tractor driven by one of the loggers. Attached to the front and back were 180-gallon bins topped with a strainer to remove any bugs or leaves that may have gotten into the sap. The men were incredibly swift; moving tree to tree filling their buckets. It was nearly impossible to keep up. Once we had emptied out every bucket, we headed back to camp where we were introduced to the sugar shack; an old, discolored, wooden structure with a tremendous amount of hot, white, steam pouring out of it.

 

We then met Pat Steiger, Tim’s father, I instantly felt a connection with this man as he reminded me of my own grandfather. His voice took us away as he explained the traditions of sapping handed down to him from his grandfather, dating back to the late 1800’s. Pat proudly explained how the machinery they used was the “old fashioned” way of making syrup. But he reminded us that the “old way” is the best way when it comes to making this sugary treat.

 

As we talked, the old tractor dumped our collection of sap into a 900-gallon reservoir tank. Leading us to the cooking process where the true science of perfect temperatures and complicated stages of the sapping process occurs. In layperson terms, the sap is boiled, evaporating off the water, leaving the sugary dark treat we have come to know as syrup. As our mouths watered with the thought of homemade pancakes with fresh syrup, the Steiger family changed our whole perspective of syrup by offering suggestions of butter pecan ice cream topped with this delicious treat or good ‘ol Midwestern old fashioneds mixed with the sugary goodness.

 

After being part of that traditional experience sapping in the woods that day, I have a new appreciation for syrup. I am also fully aware that it is no small task, and not remotely the same as store bought varieties. Thank you to the Steiger family for sharing your love of sapping trees and the outdoors with us!

 

Facts:

*Only use hard maple trees

*Tap trees that are 16 inches across the stump or larger

*Doesn't matter if it's stored in plastic or glass

*If not used right away freeze

*Usually harvested between March 15 and April 15th

*Sap only flows with warm days (40 degrees) and cold nights (20 degrees)

*50 gallons of sap equals 1 gallon of syrup

* The cooking process is 6 hours, 3 hours once everything heats up

*On a good day, a 5-gallon bucket will be collected per tree

*Last year the Steiger family tapped 350 trees yielding 6000 gallons of sap, an average of 17 or 18 gallons per tree, and made 50 gallons of syrup