Bruce’s Mill Maple Sugar Bush
March 14, 2021
Click pictures to follow along on the Maple Syrup Trail
On one of my morning walks I met up with Jake, he’s one of our older neighbours. I told him I had been to the Maple Sugarbush at Bruce’s Mill and he immediately took a keen interest. I could see he was eager to cut in, and at my first pause, he started with his own story to share. Jake is in his 80’s and told me he grew up in the country and his family had a few acres of land with some maple sugar trees. He said at this time of year he used to go to out back and tap the trees for sap. He told me “It was really just for my amusement and curiosity and I did it the old way. I used a brace to make the holes for the spiles.” “Yes, I know kind of drill you mean” I replied. “My father had one and I used it for my backyard projects.” Well he just continued on, he had a story to tell. He went on to explain how he’d drill the hole at a slight downward angle and that his dad had painted the end of the drill bit to ensure he didn’t drill too deep a hole and damage the tree. Then he’d hammer in the spiles, hang the buckets and wait. “That was the easy part” I said. “Not for me” he shot back. “I was young and impatient; the drips of sap into the bucket was too slow.”
Jake did end up having to wait for his buckets to fill. Some mornings he’d find lots of sap and on other mornings there just wasn’t as much. His father told him “When the icicles are melting, the sap is flowing.”
Sap flow from sugar maples is entirely temperature dependent. A rise in temperature of the sapwood to above 32 degrees F causes a positive pressure within the wood. This pressure produces the sap flow. Many people assume that maple sap flows up from the tree’s roots on warm days. Actually—on warm spring days which follow cold nights—sap can flow down from the maple tree’s branches and then out the spout. The sap can also flow back and forth laterally within the tree. It will flow out a hole drilled into the tree or out through a broken or cut branch. The internal pressure of the tree, when it is greater than the atmospheric pressure, causes the sap to flow out, much the same way blood flows out of a cut. If you visualize a portion of a tree trunk as being under positive pressure, a taphole is like a leak, sap moves towards the point of lowest pressure from all directions.
When the temperature falls to near, or below, freezing the pressure may become negative in relation to atmospheric pressure. As the maple tree begins to freeze, sap is actually sucked up into the tree through the large wood pores that connect with the tree’s roots. At these times the tree is actually recharging itself with liquid from its roots. The process continues as long as there are freezing temperatures and rising sap. If the freezing period is a long and slow one, the tree will suck up a great deal of sap. The following sap run will be a good one as long as the warming temperatures cooperate as well. Excerpt from http://www.massmaple.org/about-maple-syrup/how-sugar-maple-trees-work/
Jake said he tapped about 20 maple sugar trees, and they need to be at least 10 inches across, the minimum size for tapping tree sap. Some were much bigger and very old according to his dad. His father’s father and father before him had lived there for years. “But now it’s all houses” said Jake. Looking into the distance Jake paused for a moment. He seemed to be reminiscing back to those times at his old home.
“Some days I was my own worse enemy.” He started up with a laugh and explained how his impatience could get the best of him. He recalled the day he collected tree sap and fell on his ass. Heading back home with large pails filled with sap in each hand, one of the pails hit the back of his leg. He lost his balance, slipped on ice and now he was wearing his liquid gold. “I was soaked but couldn’t bear to let it go back to waste.” “I rushed to the barn, grabbed a shovel and scraped from the ice whatever frozen sap I could”. I quipped back with a laugh “I guess the 5 second rule didn’t apply that time.”
His dad fashioned a shoulder yoke for him after that, now he felt like a work horse pulling a plow. He kept using it because it did make things a lot easier. Here’s a picture of a student on a school trip to Bruce’s Mill shouldering a yoke. Can you imagine young Jake carrying such a load through snow?
Jake went on to explain all of his sap went into a large barrel. He and his dad would then bring the sap to his uncle’s sugarhouse. Jake’s sap would now be boiled down with the sap his uncle collected. Jake’s father, uncles and local farmers all helped in the time consuming process of boiling the water out from the sweet sap. A rigorous and constant boil had to be maintained. More sap was added to the large pans as the liquid level dropped. Locals from all around could see it was maple syrup season because steam was billowing up from the sugarhouse. “Boiling, filtering and testing went on until my uncle determined the sugar content was right.”
Jake’s recollections of his maple syrup days were almost done. Said Jake, “I mostly watched the adults now. They’d say large pans of boiling water and stoking the wood furnace wasn’t a safe place for me”.
“My dad would pour off a tin of syrup and send me outside to make sugar on snow for the little kids.” Jake demonstrated for me by forming a hard packed bowl shape in the snow next to where we were standing. Then he said he would drizzle syrup on the snow bowl, it would instantly become maple taffy. The kids enjoyed the tasty snack by picking it off the snow with a twig. He also said that some people eat sour pickles with their maple taffy. I said to him that sounded weird, but I’ll try it next time I have maple taffy.
SUGAR ON SNOW RECIPE
- Maple syrup, pan of snow, sour pickles, plain doughnuts
- Heat maple syrup to 114 degrees C. A higher heat will make a stiffer product.
- As soon as the syrup reaches the proper temperature pour or drizzle immediately. It will form a thin chewy sheet of taffy over the snow.
- Twirl it up with a fork or a popsicle stick and enjoy.
- Serve with sour pickles or doughnuts to cut the sweetness.