I remember reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's Farmer Boy when I was a kid until the pages were tattered and the cover worn. (Oh come on. That really wasn't a surprise, was it?)
A few of the particular chapters stuck with me. There was a chapter about cutting ice out of the lake and storing it all summer long in the ice house, insulated with shavings. That seemed awesomely foreign to a boy raised in Georgia.
But there was also a chapter called "Sugar snow" - that time of year in New England when the days begin to warm up, but the nights still plunge below freezing. The snow is still thick on the ground, but you can feel the first hints of spring in the air. That's when the maples run with sap.
A few weeks ago during a randomly warmish week in early February (and before the last blizzard), we had a tree guy stop by to check on a few of our older trees, and make sure they weren't at too much risk of dropping major branches or other damage.
He was talking to my Bride in the driveway when he stopped mid-sentence. You could hear a constant 'drip-drip-drip'. We thought it was snow shifting in the sun. He walked over to a huge, ancient black maple that grows next to our driveway and touched the wet spot leeching down the trunk. He touched the moisture to his lips. "That's sap," he said. The maples were taking advantage of the warmth and the sap was moving.
Last week, my Bride reminded me that we were getting on to the time when we could count on some consistent days of the perfect weather. She had seen taps and buckets spring up down on trees down the road towards Concord. I had bought taps last year after the season was over, and they had been sitting in a cup on my desk as a promise of an attempt to try it ourselves this year. So I ran out to the feed store and picked up a few buckets of our own.
We had scoped out the maple trees on our property over the summer, and ended up tapping five of them. You're looking for something at least 12" in diameter - preferably sugar maple. I did a bit of hasty research into tapping on tapmytrees.com (where else), and figured out where and how to drill the taps into the trees. On some of them, the sap started dripping out immediately. On others, it came a little more sluggish. The kids helped me set the taps and hang the buckets.
We have a variety of types - one that I'm pretty sure is a sugar maple, one black, three of indeterminate sort. I'm not a tree expert, although I'd love to learn how to tell them apart with more confidence. There are a couple of other younger ones back in the woodline, but I ran out of taps, and figured this was a good enough trial run.
Suddenly, though, I'm seeing the trees everywhere. There's a line of more than a dozen sugar maples not half a mile from my house on the edge of a field with no taps. There are more scattered along the side of the road. All of them with potential for tapping. Maybe if this goes well, I'll start some surreptitious roadside tapping next year.
Once we collect the sap, we've still got to boil it down, of course. According to all the sources, it's a ratio of about 40:1. As in, you collect 40 quarts of sap to get a single quart of syrup. That's a lot of boil-off.
My Bride went eagerly out to check on the collection progress a few hours after we set the taps. We had less than an inch in most of the buckets for that first afternoon. And yesterday, it snowed again, and didn't get much out of the mid-thirties all day. But the rest of the week promises to be perfect weather, and I'm looking forward to seeing what we collect.
In the meantime, I think I'm going to dig my copy of Farmer Boy back out and read it to the kids again.