Well, it’s April 3rd already, but Winter, like a stubborn Minnesota Norwegian is refusing to give in to the mosquito season. You know, that warmer time of year when most Minnesotans head north instead of south for vacation: “up to the lake”. Ahh, the relaxation, the fishing, the swimming. But wait a minute, the thermostat is still stuck in “cooler than normal” mode, ever since Old Man Winter started laughing at us when he threw a strong two-fister of snow and cold at us back in mid-December. Yes the temperatures are still giving people fits. There’s still plenty of snow in the woods, the ice still thick on the lakes. The trout season opens in nine days, and the phrase “ice-covered opener” is beginning to creep back into our vocabulary. To top it off the forecast is calling for a winter storm warning and another possible six to twelve or more inches, which has many people spitting tacks. Well traction should be good with all those tacks! So yeah things are a bit out of whack. Normally by this time of the year we are in the midst of our time in the sugarbush, trying to stay ahead of the sap flow. Usually at this time the trees are giving up copious amounts of sap, that stuff we turn into what I sometimes call “Liquid Gold”. At times it can be hard to cook it down fast enough since raw sap has a relatively short lifespan. It’s often a fast and furious time to make the most of what the trees are offering up.
But as I mentioned earlier winter is toying with us, trying to see how long we will tolerate this foolishness.This usually is a time of weather “mood swings” but this year the only moods involved belong to the citizens of this fine state. And with the below average temperatures, conditions are not good for sap flow-typically temps around 40 degrees during the day and below freezing at night are pretty ideal. This year not so much. ..This extra free time has allowed us to take care of other things like cutting and splitting extra firewood and getting things done at home before it gets all crazy. And then I remembered this little essay I wrote a few years back to a friend who, familiar with making maple syrup had moved away, out of maple syrup country. I sent the essay to him along with a few bottles of “liquid gold”. It’s very basic and simple, elemental, and non scientific. Here it is:
Each year the world, within the depths of the cold dark winter, reaches a point in its path where the days begin to lengthen, to get warmer. The cold silent starkness that sends Nimrod the Hunter out on full moons to look for Canis the Songdog is gradually replaced by the building of sound and sunlight as we turn the corner on our yearly trip around the Sun. Soon the Chickadee is singing his spring song, and there is a drip, drip, drip, from the roofs of our dwellings telling us to get ready, get ready, get ready, as the mercury rises steadily day by day. The snow begins to settle, and becomes firm after sundown as it undergoes metamorphosis into something more solid. We stir with excitement for we know what’s coming. Preparations are made: the last of the wood is split, buckets cleaned of a year’s worth of dust, the drill bit sharpened. We walk the woods on our Bear paws visiting our old friends in the sugarbush, planning, anticipating.
Then the time is right; the days warm, the nights cool; the snow soft in the Sun, frozen at night. We abandon everything else and plunge into a different time and place, take several steps back in time to partake of this centuries old tradition which we will think back upon all year. We have high hopes, more taps, and even more energy. Drilling, tapping, hanging over and over until we have them all out. Then the wait for that thump, thump, thump of the first drops into empty buckets, and the knowing smiles that follow.
The heaviness of full buckets that time after time need to be emptied, the sore arms and shoulders that are ignored for another trip back into the bush. Twenty, forty, sixty gallons and more… Crackling oak, ironwood, and ash producing the first aromatic steam of the year that you can’t get enough of, that you can smell deep in the woods, that keeps you going. The ever darkening shades of amber magically appearing in the big pan. That wonderful aroma getting stronger as the amber ever deepens before your tired, smoke weary eyes.The laughter in the woods. A quick bite to eat and then back at it. There is really no time for sleep or work. The satisfaction of our efforts. We are addicted to this slushy, sweet dance in the timber; no activities outside the sugarbush universe are pursued. We have to make the most of this time, as we do every year.
And then, the time comes when the nights are too warm, the buckets tired. It seems like it went on forever, but also that we just got started. Finally, a chance to sample our prize; AAHHH yes, this is what we have been waiting for. Here it is, our elixir, our amber work of love. And now a sudden flurry of pancakes and maple sundaes will dominate our diets.
We will do this again next time around; we will produce our liquid gold, to be shared so that people may understand. And so they may know that this liquid amber is a product of sun and frost, of sweat and fatigue; it is born of wood smoke and wet feet, of heat and steam, it is offered up by the maple and the melting snow, supervised by the squirrel and the red-shoulders. It comes from deep within the Avon Hills, the beautiful Avon Hills of Minnesota. It comes from the heart of the Black Powder Beagles to you so that you may not forget.
It is, …a gift from GOD.