Sweetwater season. March and April are know as the sweetest times of the year, when the days grow long and the sap starts flowing. The air is thick with the smell of maple syrup. This story is shared with us by our administrative manager, Molly O'Neill. Photos by the other resident syruper at Visit Cook County - Kjersti Vick, marketing manager.
Crunch, crunch, crunch… My snowshoes take bites out of the crusty top layer of the snow as I trudge from maple tree to maple tree behind my house, creating a labyrinth of walkways trying to efficiently circle around to all the trees in one smooth swoop. No backtracking.
In order to harvest the sap to boil into syrup, the trees need to be tapped. So I meander through my child-like maze of paths and arrive at each tree with my drill, drilling a hole about 2 inches into the tree and hoping I’ve avoided the scabbed over holes of past years, dead spots and frost cracks, and hit a sweet spot that starts pouring out sap before I even tap the spile into the hole. It’s an oddly intimate moment with a tree, to be drilling a hole into the side of it with the intent of pilfering its nutrients and sugars to use for myself. You get to know your trees. Which ones are extra good producers with no reasonable explanations, which ones only produce out of one side, which ones are early birds and which ones wait to get rolling until the season is well underway.
The first year, we didn’t account for how deep the snow was when we put the taps in and by the end of the season some of the buckets hung nearly over my head! “Right,” I thought to myself as I reached up to unhook a milk jug overflowing with sticky sap and tried not to dump it all over myself, “if you want the hole to be four feet off the ground and there are still two feet of snow beneath you, drill the hole closer to the snow!” I sighed to myself, then giggled. Next year.
The first good run of the season usually happens when it’s sunny, and it’s so exciting to see the buckets on the trees filling up by the hour, the sun shining warmly for the first time in months, the birds all singing at full capacity, squirrels and critters scurrying around, and all the friends I can possibly collect to help me haul in the day’s bounty are laughing and chatting around me. This is the day I have in my mind as I sit on my couch under a big blanket wishing it wasn’t -10. In March. This is the cause for my cabin fever itchiness and the cure that breaks me free of it. Sappy Happy? Sorry, I just couldn’t resist.
Don’t get me wrong, sugaring is work. Real work. For a backyard operation where nothing is automated or centralized, it’s a lot of hauling. Hauling wood, hauling sap buckets to the holding tanks to be emptied, hauling 100 milk jugs strung together and tied to your belt as you wind around hanging buckets on the fresh taps. Somebody hauling to the store when the beer runs out.
Most backyard operations are assembled with the best descriptions of “backyard” style anything. There’s a lot of wire, rope, string, bits of tubing, duct tape, concrete blocks, tarps to keep the rain from replacing what you’re working so hard to evaporate. There are pallets to stand on to keep you out of the rapidly accumulating mud around the stove as it melts off the snow and frost in the ground around it. Oil barrels are commonly converted into stoves which we try to pass off as evaporators but are really a distant cousin at best. The only thing you really can’t skimp on is the pan.
Then there’s the fire. The fire tender is the ringmaster. Tasked with keeping an unbelievably hot fire at a maximum roar can be challenging with a warped oil drum that sucks a draft from any gap, of which there are many. The stove pipe lilts to the side a bit which isn’t ideal for maximum draft but does make a handy place to roast a hotdog in a hurry. Every 15 minutes or so the master of the operation gathers another armload of split wood from the pile and sets it next to the stove door while taking a knee. When I tend the fire, I wear welders gloves because I’ve melted the sleeves of too many jackets, and a handkerchief over my nose and face both for breathing and because of the year I didn’t and realized after a full 24 hours of close proximity exposure that I had mildly burned most of my face except where my hat protected it. There’s not much rest for this position, and it’s best if you’re a person who doesn’t mind fussing endlessly, which I am. The old exhaust fan that someone retrieved from a home renovation dumpster in the neighborhood serves as our forced air circulation to keep the fire as hot as possible, and it needs frequent repositioning so as not to burn through the iron pipe that goes into the stove, or to readjust the angle when it looks as if it will burn right through the side of the stove as the red-hot glow grows brighter. Maintaining the fire is a balance with pre-heating the ice cold sap from the storage tank in the preheat pan that reuses the heat coming off the main pan to warm it up before it trickles in. Don’t lose the boil!
My most dreaded, and ultimately favorite shift is usually from about 3am until breakfast when the friends and visitors awake again. After fun and frivolity around the stove until the wee hours, the party quiets down and someone has to relieve the night crew. I’m usually the kind of person who is lucky to get out of the house fully clothed and heading to the correct location for the day, the type of girl who really needs to figure out an intravenous system to get coffee into my body well before the alarm goes off so I can get a head start on the three hour process that is waking up. But with sugaring, it’s different. It’s special. I awaken, stumble back into my long underwear and layers which I can identify by the pungent saturation of woodsmoke and the sticky sap residue that streaks everything I wear. Then comes the most special part: sweetwater coffee. Sap makes the best coffee in the world. I boil some fresh sap on the stove and pour it over fresh grounds and add a splash of cream and settle in next to the stove with a book for after sunrise. It’s pitch dark save for the glow from the fire, and quiet in the woods but for the soft sounds of the sap boiling. I lean over the steamy pan and breathe in the sweet smelling fog. The night watch stumbles away for a few hours sleep, muttering about when they last stoked the fire. I’m alone now in my camp chair watching the stars until the dawn starts creeping in from the east. It’s not often that I witness the entire sunrise, and it’s worth getting up for in the middle of the night a few nights a year. As I finish my second cup of dreamy sweetwater java, the birds have come out and provide the most cheerfully competitive soundtrack to the streaky wisps of pink clouds and purple back drop as it brightens into morning.
The sap has begun to thicken and darken and later in the day will be the most exciting five minutes of the process when we inevitably miscalculate how long we have left and have to pull the whole pan off the fire because it’s been stoked too recently and risks scorching the pan. “All hands on deck!” And the friends and family and neighbors we’ve collected throughout the weekend gather around the pan and many gloved hands make light work of moving this incredibly valuable good we’ve all just had the privilege of harvesting. Now, who’s making the pancakes?