Lingering cold, slow-running sap, mud up to your ankles… How could life be better?
By Ben Hewitt
Mar 30 2015
Ben and Rye, age 9, gather sap to haul back to the evaporator;Photo Credit : Penny Hewitt
By the time March rolls around, it seems as though winter will never end.
In one sense, there’s nothing unusual about this; in northern Vermont, there always comes a time when it seems as though winter will never end. But in another sense, this March truly is different. Already, we’ve awakened to find the thermometer on the cruel side of zero enough times that it no longer seems remarkable. The snowbanks along the sides of our quarter-mile driveway tower high above our heads. Our Subaru squeezes between them, but just barely, a life-size slot car. One more storm and I’ll have to use the tractor to widen the path, an hours-long task I do not covet.
The storm comes, of course, and it’s the biggest of the season thus far, delivering another 16 inches of snow. I spend three frigid hours on the tractor and don’t finish. The snow is followed by yet another series of 10- and even 20-below mornings that are no colder than so many previous mornings but somehow feel that way, if only because we know what the month is capable of. Where is the sun? Where is that day that portends the season to come, the sound of melting snow dripping from the eaves and the exuberant sense of the world awakening? Where is that certain musky smell of the earth revealed after months of cover?
And where, oh where, is the first sap run? We’d hung our 60 buckets in late February, remembering how we’d missed the first good runs both seasons prior. The old adage of being “tapped in” by Town Meeting—the first Tuesday in March—is no longer reliable, because in the 21st century, the season may be halfway over by the time Town Meeting rolls around. So we tapped the last week of February, and I felt awfully smug about it. “It’s nice to be ready in time,” I remarked to Penny. “We’ll definitely get the first run this year.”
Then came a gusting wind, and we trudged down the field on snowshoes to take the buckets down so that they didn’t end up blown to places we wouldn’t find until long after the season was over. Even on snowshoes, we struggled and tripped through the snow, leaving deep, sunken tracks. After the wind, we hung the buckets again, but then came another storm and still more wind. This time we didn’t take the buckets down, and they blew off the trees; though we didn’t lose any, we cursed our laziness and trudged down the field to hang them yet again.
Finally, sugaring season arrives. It’s early April, a full month later than normal, and the sap flows reluctantly, as if the trees are struggling to awaken from a deep sleep. The first run is modest; when we reach the buckets, they’re only a third full, each drip from the tap isolated by a long silence while the next drop collects at the end of the spout.
The snow is still deep, and I pull the gathering buckets in the sled across the soft swells of Melvin’s pasture. Rye comes with me to stabilize the sled from behind; without his help, it would tip over in the deep trough left by my snowshoes. By the time we arrive at the evaporator, there’s sweat on my brow and I can feel oxygenated blood pumping through my limbs, like sap rising in my body.
Rye and I pour the contents of the gathering buckets into the pan atop the old backyard evaporator that we bought many years ago from a fellow who’d come to his senses and chosen to divest himself of all his sugarmaking apparatus. “It’s an awful lot of work for not much return,” he told me, only after he’d secured in a back pocket the fold of $20 bills I’d handed him. He shook his head and repeated himself: “An awful lot of work.”
He was right, of course. It is a lot of work. Maybe even an awful lot of work. But standing by the evaporator with my family, as the fire crackles and the first tendrils of steam rise from the heating sap, I’m grateful for the effort necessitated by our simple operation. I know that in the morning I’ll feel it in my muscles and I’ll like how it feels. It feels honest. It feels human. It means that when spring arrives and suddenly every day there’s more to do than the day can possible accommodate, we’ll be ready. Or at least more ready than we’d be if we hadn’t sugared.
Rye and I have gathered only 25 gallons of sap, but it’s sweeter than normal, and our haul produces nearly a gallon of finished syrup. Later, a friend tells us that when the season is compressed, as this one will be, the trees make up for it by producing sap with a higher sugar content. I don’t know whether that’s true, but there’s no question that it’s sweeter this year than any year in memory.
We drink it straight from the sap buckets and later from the evaporator pan, drawing it off into an old enamel cup that holds permanent residence on a nearby stump. If there were no other reason to sugar—no finished syrup, no muscles strengthened, no quiet evenings by our unsheltered evaporator, noticing how each day is now longer than the preceding one—drinking warm sap with my family as the returning geese hurtle through the sky just above our heads would suffice. A man could want for more, I suppose. But that would be greedy.
There’s no roof over our evaporator; there are no walls around it. The four of us sit on stumps as we boil. The boys carve wooden bows, and Penny whittles a spoon. I play my guitar or work on one of the chainsaws; every so often one of us rises to stoke the fire with the slabwood stacked nearby. From our vantage point, we can see the pond, and we note the progression of spring in the ice’s retreat. One day, Rye throws a block of wood onto the ice and it doesn’t break through. The next day, the wood is gone, the ice beneath it having succumbed.
The sap runs again a couple of days later and a couple of days after that, but, like the first, they’re halfhearted runs. Even on the idealized 50-degree days that follow the idealized clear, cold nights, the trees seem unwilling to relinquish, and we rarely gather more than 20 gallons of sap at a time. Still, our stash of syrup slowly grows: a gallon, then a gallon and a half, then two. Our first heavy run comes in late April, but by then the sap has gone “buddy,” and the resulting syrup has that distinctive, almost bitter, taste of a late-season crop. We’ll use it for baking.
The buddy sap brings an end to our season, but we’re happy, because buddy sap means budding trees. It means that we’ll soon see a color we’ve seen little of for nearly seven months: green.
We pull our taps, having made just over four gallons of syrup, less than half our usual total, and we’re happy that Rye has boiled a half-gallon of his own from trees he tapped deep in our woods. He boils in a big pot over an open fire, an arrangement that requires long hours of tending and of hauling firewood from the stacks he made last summer. But now he’s running low on wood, and when Penny and I suggest that he combine his sap with ours, it’s as if we’ve offended him. “No way,” he says. “This is my syrup.” He turns back to his pot, the sweet steam rising all around him.
The energy of the season is everywhere. New lambs cavort in the barn, bouncing in that way only lambs can bounce, as if the world were a trampoline. The cows begin shedding their thick winter coats, and tufts of fur drift across the lawn like miniature tumbleweeds. The grass is going to come in late; we count and recount the bales of hay that remain, dividing them by the probable number of days until we can turn the animals out to pasture. We think we’ll make it, but it’s going to be tight. It always is, but this year it’ll be tighter.
As happens every spring, there comes a morning when the remaining layer of snow has frozen hard enough to support the weight of the boys on their bicycles, and they take off across Melvin’s field, whooping in the cold. As I did last year, I promise myself that after chores I’ll join them. And like last year, I don’t, which leads to another promise: that next year I will. The boys are 12 and 9 now; they’ll be gone before I know it. I’d better act on my promise soon.
For a time, a torrent of water runs directly through the front yard, the result of heavy snowmelt from the big banks along the driveway. It forms a small river we must ford on every trip to and from the barn. We prepare for the basement to flood, which has happened in years with far less snow. But for reasons I can’t explain, the flood doesn’t happen, and we’re buoyed by this stroke of luck. We put the skis and snowshoes away. The snow shovels go back to the basement, and our porch fills with seedling flats, little shoots of green in a world that’s still brown.
For two weeks, there’s mud everywhere: in the yard; on our shoes; on the cuffs of our pants; under our fingernails. I can trace the progress of Daisy, our bluetick coonhound, across the living-room floor. The boys kick off their boots and mud splatters against the wall. There’s mud in the kitchen and even in the bathroom. After lunch, we mop it up, but by dinner it has returned.
Now the trees are leafing out in full. Now the tadpoles emerge. The boys catch them and hold them in their palms, before releasing them back to the spring-cold water. They do this over and over again, partly for the thrill of the chase, and partly to feel that slippery new life tickling their skin.
We take down the sap buckets and cart them across the snowless field to be cleaned and stowed away. We pull taps. We rinse and dry the hauling vessels. We scrub the evaporator pan and empty the arch of ashes. The winter that only a month ago seemed as though it would never end is over. The spring and summer that will surely seem as if they end much too quickly have begun.
Four gallons of syrup. It’s not much. I could say that it wasn’t a very good season and I wouldn’t be lying. But the truth is, it was a fine season. It always is.
Yankee’s editors and author Ben Hewitt understand that the term “Northeast Kingdom” popularly refers to Orleans, Essex, and Caledonia counties in northern Vermont. We’ve taken a bit of artistic license in asking Ben Hewitt to write about his family and fellow Vermonters who may live outside those boundaries, because the term “the Kingdom” captures perfectly the mindset and singular way of life that Yankee has always respected.