Writing & Photography of Jim Murtagh

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The Writings & Photography of Jim Murtagh

Sweet Rewards

An assemblage of galvanized steel buckets hangs from the trees along the forest’s edge. Small specimens support a lone bucket, while mature trees bear the weight of two or three containers. Listen carefully and you can hear the sound of sweetness, as the trees play their seasonal song with the orchestrated drip of maple sap.

The clear liquid collecting in the buckets does not resemble maple syrup in color, taste, or consistency, but like an uncut diamond, there is brilliance trapped inside.

Maple syrup production is a simple, but lengthy and laborious process. The basic steps involve tapping, collecting and boiling maple sap. The first two steps demand hard work, the last requires time and patience.

A steady groan, from the portable generator on the back of the pickup truck, disrupts the silence of the woods. A long yellow extension cord winds through the trees until it ends at an electric drill firmly embedded in the hands of a local farmer. It is difficult to bore a hole into the tree, and the drill whines as it struggles to shred the wood fibers. Sawdust falls to the ground as the bit is removed. A quick puff of air from the farmer’s mouth clears any remaining debris from the hole.

A small spout, also called a spile or tap, is gently hammered into the hole. The spout will funnel the tree’s sap into a collection bucket and provide a hook for the bucket to hang. A lid is fitted to the bucket to keep out rain and debris. The drilling and tapping process is repeated 150 more times over two days.

Experience allows the farmer to identify the maple trees quickly in a forest full of leafless cousins. Black oak, ash and other trees similar to maples grow beside each other in the woods. The texture of a tree’s bark, and the shape and thickness of its branches, help identify the species. Only healthy maple trees larger than a foot in diameter are tapped. Trees with large canopies produce more sap than narrower specimens because they gather more sunlight. Older trees yield sweeter sap, while swamp maples, notorious for their low sugar content, are not tapped.

Hole placement is critical for a successful tap. The best tap position is close to the base of the tree, on the southeast exposure, and positioned in-line with a major cluster of branches. These holes tap the tree’s largest “artery” and produce the most sap. It is important the taps get good afternoon sun for the sap to run.

Finding a prime spot to drill on a tree that has been tapped for more than 30 years is a challenge. New holes must be kept at least one inch away from the scars masking previous holes. On older trees that get three to four taps each season, it may be necessary to drill holes at a height of four to five feet.

In late summer and throughout fall, maple trees stop growing and begin storing excess starch in special cells called ray cells. The starch lies dormant as long as the tree’s temperature remains below 40 degrees F. In the spring, when temperatures start to rise, enzymes in the ray cells convert the starch to sugar, which is then passed into the tree sap. This process continues until the tree warms to 45 degrees F, at which time the enzymes stop functioning and sugar production halts. Once the tree’s buds begin to open, the sap will develop an off flavor and is no longer desirable. The ideal weather conditions for sap collection are nighttime temperatures below freezing with daytime highs nearing 40 degrees F. As long as these conditions are met, the sap will keep flowing.

A single tap yields six to ten gallons of sap per season, and a bucket can fill within a day when the weather cooperates. It is a taxing process collecting the sap. Individual buckets are emptied into larger five gallon pails, and then the larger pail is dumped into a two hundred gallon storage tank pulled along by a tractor. The sap must be collected and kept cool, or it will spoil just like milk. A back-breaking 40 gallons of sap needs to be collected to produce a single gallon of syrup.

Inside the sugar shack, steam from the evaporator fills the room. Stepping in from the cold, eyeglasses are immediately fogged over, and you are engulfed in a sweet maple aroma. The building is only ten feet across, yet you can’t see the other side. You can barely see your hand held out in front of you.

The fire beneath the pan is roaring, and demands a continuous supply of scrap wood to keep the sap boiling. Maple syrup is the reward after the water in the sap is boiled off, and the sugar content of the remaining mixture reaches 66 percent, at a temperature about 219 degrees F. For each gallon of syrup that is drawn from the pan, 39 gallons of water were turned into steam. Even with large equipment, the process takes hours of constant attention; feeding the fire and adding more sap to the pan.

The luscious amber elixir is drawn from the pan and filtered to remove suspended particles, referred to as sugar sand. Finally, the syrup is poured into sterilized containers and sealed where it will wait until it is called upon to accompany a delicious pancake or French toast breakfast.