It’s how Ohio’s maple syrup season begins—and ends—one melodious drop at a time.
On second thought, it starts when the phone rings and Chuck is on the line. He’s the guy who rallies a small group of foraging friends together almost daily during the stretch of winter just before spring to pursue one of nature’s sweetest gifts—real maple syrup. The foraging expeditions come at the expense of sore backs, tender shoulders and knees, cold toes, and muddy everything. The cost is far outweighed by brisk mornings spent outdoors or lingering afternoons in the sugar shack where our Carhartts soak up smoke from the wood fi re, while the hypnotic sounds of boiling sap provides the background music. Add craft beers and freshly made waffles, and the experience is pretty magical.
A few years ago, Chuck convinced another friend, who owns some farmland fringed by a healthy scattering of hardwood trees in patches overlooking the Vermilion River Valley, to let him tap the sugar maples among the oaks, beech, Chinese chestnuts, and pines. He spent one autumn identifying 65 maples by the shape and the distinct orange-to-red color of their leaves, ceremoniously marking the trunks with a fat Sharpie, and creating a map to be sure to find them once the leaves had dropped.
The rest of the season, Chuck and his pal Bob turned an old, bare-bones milking house into a sugar shack, big enough to house a small wood-fi red, Amish-made maple syrup evaporator. There was just enough room left for a few rickety lawn chairs and standing room for the occasional visitor, but not much else. It was the perfect setting to fritter away an entire day.
Come February, I join Bob, who drives the old Ford tractor loaded with stacks of old-timey galvanized buckets, down a winding road and through snow-covered fields. When we find trees, the ones with the big black circles etched on the bark, Chuck drills a hole and taps in a spigot. I hang the buckets and hoods, each with a ding, dent, or crease that suggests they have a history, yet still get the job done, old-school style. Sometimes, sap drips straight away. We know that other times, the trees will not be so eager to give up their reserves.
The next day we make the first collection of the year using five-gallon buckets to haul sap from the woods back to the tractor and into a 50-gallon holding drum. It overflows, much like our excitement. This, when boiled down, represents the first gallon of syrup; it takes that much sap to make one delicious gallon.
The next day, some of the buckets are optimistically half full or disappointingly less. The barrel is nowhere near full, but in the end it all adds up, just slower than expected.
Mother Nature will turn this dance on and off over the next few weeks as the weather warms and cools, the ground thaws and freezes, and as snow and rain come down and the sun shines. This is a hobby you can do the old-fashioned way, without lines and pump houses, but you might have to take leave of your day job or be retired like another helper, Phil, who eventually takes on the job of driving the tractor. In only a few days, we all fall into a nice, steady routine and there’s a rhythm in our chore. Bob and Chuck always remain behind, in the warmth of the sugar shack. No one questions the fairness of this. My dog Ben joins us every time. His job is just to be a dog off a leash.
An irregular cast of characters pops in and out of the shack as the season moves forward. Few work with us but everyone hopes for a taste of freshly drawn syrup, which Chuck is slow to surrender.
What anyone does most of the time in the sugar shack is simply watch what’s happening in the evaporator. The raw sap pumps from one of the drums as a slow, steady dribble into the first of three channels—fast enough to keep the levels in the pan high enough, but slow enough to maintain a vigorous boil that releases big fat bubbles. The evaporator is fueled with split wood all day as the sap inconspicuously travels from one channel to the next. By the time it gets to the last channel, thousands of tiny bubbles are being released, and the sap’s texture has transformed from watery thin to thick, and its color from crystal clear to rich brown.
There are no sophisticated controls other than a watchful eye, a good nose, and a hydrometer Chuck uses to measure when sap has become syrup. This is when he releases some of the finished syrup, about a half-gallon at a time. He doesn’t offer anyone a taste nor does he try any himself. No one presses the issue, but one morning I show up with a not-so-subtle waffle iron and some batter ready to fi re off six to eight reasons to loosen his grip on the syrup.
This is how it goes—we collect, boil, draw, drink coffee, eat waffles, and drink the occasional beer—until the nights and days warm above freezing, spring is within reach, and the maples show hints of buds. Knowing this will all come to an end soon is both a relief and a letdown.
Then we work in reverse, which is never as gratifying as those first few days. The buckets are removed, washed, and stored, and the last bit of syrup is drawn from the evaporator. We sit back with a celebratory Cold Spring Cocktail made with real maple syrup, our maple syrup, and take inventory of our work over the past five weeks: close to 1,000 gallons of sap cooked down to 22 gallons of maple syrup. It looks and sounds like enough to last a lifetime, but in reality it will last only into the next season when it’s time to go at it again. Chuck is generous and fair in doling out the syrup among all who worked for it. No one questions his rationale. We’re paid in maple syrup—glorious jars of amber-toned, smoky-flavored syrup. Even without doing the math, if we were being paid in hard dollars, we had just worked for less than minimum wage but for maximum pleasure.