Saturday, February 26, 2011

Maple Syrup

As a general rule there is nothing good about the end of winter. All the snow banks turn brown and ugly, the roads all turn to slush during the day and then freeze into ruts at night. All the winter sports like skiing and ice fishing have lost their charm and it is too early to think about spring sports. There’s nothing much to do except wait it out. Cabin fever has set in and you are about to go crazy, you have to get out of the house!
Just at the right time to save your life, maple syrup time arrives. At the start of the season you still need snowshoes to get into the wood lot to tap your trees, and by the end you can stroll through in tennis shoes to gather your taps and buckets. Before you know it the season is over, the buds have started to pop on the trees and it’s time to start thinking of spring. But, while it lasts, sugaring season is the best thing that can happen to a long winter in the North Country.
The process of making maple syrup can be a lot of fun for the whole family, kids love being out of the house and helping throughout all the steps of sugaring.
To get out and take part in this ages old tradition you need very little. At the bare minimum you need a maple tree, a spile or tap of some kind, a container, a pot, and a heat source. On the other side you can spend tens of thousands of dollars equipping a modern sugar bush. For most people somewhere in the middle is the right place to be.
To start you need to identify the right trees to tap. If you aren’t sure what a maple looks like check the leaves in the summer or fall. You are looking for a leaf like the one on the Canadian flag. The bark is gray and rough, but not patterned like tire tread, that is ash. A maple has to have at least a 10” diameter to be big enough to tap. A tap can be anything used to transfer the sap from a tap hole into a container. The Native Americans used hollow sumac sticks. I have used everything from irrigation fittings to copper tubing. But, the best thing to do is buy a few spiles from a sugarbush supplier. A local feed or farm store might have them as well. The traditional metal taps work just fine, but if you are planning to tap a lot of trees it will pay to go to a plastic spile and tubing.
When you are taping the tree try to drill the tap hole on the south or southwest side of the tree. This is the side that will get the most sunlight throughout the day and run better. You can use a bit and brace to do a few trees or a cordless drill to tap the whole forest. My little operation only calls for a bit and brace. Drilling the tree and setting the taps is one of the most fun parts of the job, and my kids love to help with this. I usually drill the hole then let one of them clean out the shavings and set the tap. On a warm day it will only take a minute before the sap starts to run. One of our favorite things to do is catch a few drops of sap on our tongues right from the tap. Maple sap tastes like the coolest freshest water you will ever taste with a little hint of sweetness.

After you have set all your taps and hung your buckets comes the hard part, waiting. It seems like it will never happen but the steady plunk…plunk…plunk in the pail soon becomes a blop…blop…blop.

It may take all day and half the night, but eventually you will get a bucket full of sweet maple sap. Everyday when I bring the kids home from school we rush to check the buckets to see how much sap we got. With the few trees that I tap in our yard I can just carry two five gallon buckets around to collect the sap, larger operations use watering troughs. I keep a barrel in the garage to store the sap until we have enough to boil.
It takes around 35-40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. The hardest and most labor-intensive part of making maple syrup is boiling down the sap. This is where you can spend some money. The sap needs to be boiled to 7 degrees above the boiling point of water. It takes a long time to boil 40 gallons to that point. I have tried everything from the kitchen stove to the BBQ grill to camp stoves and turkey fryers. What I finally settled on was a wood stove with a stainless steel pan on top of it. There is any number of ways to set up an evaporator, it can be as simple as a pot over a fire or as elaborate as a 4 x10 divided pan fired by propane. The long and short of it is you need a lot of heat and a lot of surface area to boil a lot of sap.
Once you figure out how to heat your sap you can slow down a bit, there is nothing so relaxing as sitting next to a wood fire all weekend checking your pan and shooting the breeze with friends and family. The smell of boiling maple sap is like nothing you have ever smelled before; the steam that rolls off the pan seems to be filled with wholesome goodness. It opens your senses and takes you back to a simpler time like a time machine. You could be doing this in your backyard in the middle of a big city and that smell will whisk you away to Vermont in a second.
As the sap gets lower in the pan you slowly add more to it, doing this all day until all your sap is in the pan. As the last of the sap boils down you need to keep a very careful eye on the temperature. If the level gets too low for the area of the pan it can scorch in a flash. At this point I pour the sap/syrup into a large pot and move into the kitchen. On the stove you can keep a closer eye on it and control the temperature better. This is a very critical time; once the syrup reaches 7 degrees above the boiling point of water then you have syrup. Real maple syrup does not look like the stuff in the super market; it is much thinner and usually not as dark.
When you reach the syrup stage remove it from the heat and strain it to remove any sugar sand or other impurities. I then put it back on the stove and heat it up again for canning or bottling. I just use the classic glass canning jars, but you can get all kinds of fancy containers from the supply companies.
Now comes the best part, get everybody together that helped throughout the season and have a big old country breakfast, and enjoy the fruits of your labor.
This may sound like a lot of work for a little payoff, and it would surely be cheaper to just go to a store to buy it, but there is something about eating something you made or grew yourself that makes it so much better. I know that when my little girls grow up and have kids of their own, they will tell stories of the times they helped Daddy make maple syrup, and leaving a legacy like that to be passed down is the sweetest reward of all. .

Saturday, January 1, 2011

My first duck

When I was 23 years old an event happened that changed my life forever.
It was mid October, growing colder, with those crisp blue skies you remember from your childhood. Most of the leaves had fallen, but for the stubborn oaks. Here at the western edge of the time zone it wasn’t breaking dawn until 8 o’clock. But when it did the world came alive.
I had been rudely awakened 4 hours before by an old brass alarm clock. You know the kind, wound by hand, with bells on top. I used this along with three other alarms that morning. I wanted to be sure I was up.
After a quick shower I gathered every piece of warm clothing I owned and hoped in the dodge. It was an hour drive to my new friends house. I was greeted at the door by the fattest beagle I had ever seen. Along with the beagle was the sleekest golden I’d ever seen. Following the dogs came a mountain of a man.
Denny was the father of a friend. She had been saying that her dad needed someone to go duck hunting with. Well you can imagine my excitement. I had been looking for a duck hunter my whole life. I had read everything I could find on waterfowling for years. I was obsessed but couldn’t find anyone who knew how or where to go.
After much pleading I was commanded, during the shortest phone call ever, to be at their house by 5:30 the next Friday. “ And don’t be late or I’ll leave without you.”
At 5:10 I was sitting in my truck on the side of the road ¼ of a mile down from his driveway. Being late was one thing, but too early can be just as bad.
Now here we were at a public launch on a lake I had never heard of. As we prepared to launch in the predawn darkness I looked out into the sky above the lake and saw my first flock of ducks woosh past. My heart jumped at the sight of those flitting patches of shadow, just a shade darker than the sky they sliced through.
With the golden, Abby, in the bow on point and me sitting awkwardly upon mounds of decoys, we motored to the far side of a small spit of shore that jutted into the lake. On the front side of this spit we slowed to a stop and I was introduced to my first mother line.
After setting the deeks we hide the boat behind the spit in a little cove. We made our way across the spit to find a small blind hidden among the cedars on the shore. As we sat waiting for shooting time Denny took time to explain our rig. Set in a diamond pattern with one point starting at the blind and the far point about 40 yards out in the lake. This formed a hole which I was informed was called the pocket. In this pocket we had scattered single decoys to make the pattern more natural looking. The farthest of these was maybe 25 yards out.
“ Don’t shoot at anything outside of that deek.” Denny said
“ Don’t shoot at the whole flock.” He said “ Pick one bird and make sure you hit that one, then, if there’s time look for another.”
“ But watch that last deek too, if it makes it beyond that don’t shoot.”
I tried to remember this as we waited for our first bunch to come in.
Instead of birds a wind kicked up and it started to snow, …sideways.
During this snow squall a duck had somehow floated in among our deeks without us seeing. As the snow started to clear I noticed that one of the decoys looked abnormally life like.
“ Well I’ll be damned.” Denny said.
“ It’s not much of a duck if you ask me”. He said. “Actually it’s a merganser, but if you want it you can take it.”
“ Great! How do we do it”. I said.
“ Well if you don’t ever want to hunt with me again, you can shoot it on the water.” He said.
“ That doesn’t seem very sporting “. I said
“ T’ain’t.” He said. “ But I had to see what kind of friends my daughter keeps.”
“ So what do I do?” I asked again.
“ Well,” He said. “ Just stand up and yell at him and see what he does.”
I counted to three and jumped up with the best Indian war cry I could muster. And low and behold that duck reached for the sky like I was John Wayne coming after him. It took me a moment to regroup after he jumped and I put one in his pants just as he flew over the last deek. I was crushed when he just kept going, then 300 yards out he dipped a wing and cartwheeled in.
“ That’s to far for the dog.” Denny said. “You stay here and I’ll go get it with the boat.”
“ Keep your gun handy and shoot anything that comes in while I’m gone.” He said
No sooner had he stepped through the trees than, I was horrified by the sight of a thousand Buffleheads swarming in. I tried to calm my self, and looked over my shoulder to see if Denny was anywhere to be seen, he was gone.
I took a deep breath and turned around as the flock was setting its wings. In a sea of calm, with no sounds, in slow motion, I brought my gun up. Just as I was told I picked one bird, the one with his butt closest to the water, and pulled the trigger. With a dozen years of shooting behind me I knew without looking and moved to another bird. This one had put on his air breaks and was already starting his upward climb, with the rest of the flock. I took aim and pulled the trigger one more time and the whole sky fell down.
From behind me I heard a bear coming through the cedars at full speed. Denny burst through with a crazed look and his gun half way up.
“ What the hell is going on here”! He yelled.
By now Abby was getting to the first duck and I was at the edge of the water in a daze. I looked back at Denny with a sheepish grin.
“ You told me to shoot if anything came in.” I said. “ So I did.”
“ I’ll say you did.” Denny said looking at the four birds floating in the water.
It has been years since that day that I took four birds with two shots. I’ve never been back to that blind, and I only hunted one more time with Denny. But he opened a door for me that has never been closed. Soon after I joined up with Ducks Unlimited and found many new friends to hunt with. In all the years since I’ve only seen Denny a few times, at a gun show usually. We stop and talk each time, reliving that day. At least I relive it, it may not have been that big a deal to Denny, but it changed my life forever.