April 9, 2013

Traditional Maple Sugaring

A sure sign that winter is loosening its grip is when the sap begins to flow in the sugar maples. People start excitedly asking "did it run today?". And from the sap comes that wonderful wild food, maple syrup, delicious and a lot healthier than sugar. The weather has to be just right for the sap to run: nights below freezing and days above. Once there are a string of warmer nights, the season is over. A few days ago I went to visit my friend Boots Wardinski of The Green Reaper farm to watch him gather sap with his percheron Bart, a strong and patient partner. Here Boots is hitching Bart to the handmade sled that will carry the sap barrel. 

They are heading up to the sugarbush.

Boots gathers syrup the traditional way, with galvanized buckets....

...and metal taps. This year he had 180 taps. If that sounds like a lot, there are many huge operations that have thousands of taps. 

The afternoon before, Boots had emptied the sap buckets into large containers placed around the sugarbush. A friend helps empty the large container and pour the sap through a filter into the tank. And yes, he does use some plastic. That tank was full by the end of the gathering, and holds 125 gallons.

Here is the sugarhouse, the place where the sap is boiled over many hours to reduce it to syrup. The ratio of sap to finished syrup is around 40 to 1. The sap gathered in the woods is pumped up to the white tank above, where gravity will feed it into the evaporator.

Here's the evaporator, which has pans on top where the sap is boiled; it is wood fired, and you can see the firebox door on its side. The boiling sap has to be watched, and tested, until it achieves the correct sugary solution. Very sweet syrup is very light in color, with a lighter maple flavor; in the grading of syrup, it's called Fancy, or Grade A Light Amber. This is my favorite, and happily Boots was making all Fancy syrup so far this year, and I brought home a half gallon.

You are more likely these days to see plastic pipe and plastic taps for gathering sap. The lines from the taps feed into another line that goes to a gathering tank. The trees have to be on a slope for this to work, unless the producer is using a pump.

Here's a very large stainless steel tank, which is just down the road from Boots' small operation. You can see the lines, some of them quite large, coming from the sugarbush and leading into the tank. Making maple syrup has become an industrialized business for many. It's good to know that some people are still working in a hands-on, simple way, getting full physical pleasure from the earth's bounty.


  1. Oh thank you very much for this post! Wonderful pictures!
    Living in very rural Nova Scotia we have many sugar bush camps. My favourite experieince is going with my photography class way way back is the bush to a wonderful family run camp (Ripley's( who live year round off grid in their log cabin. The have a water wheel that gives them power to bring the sap from the trees up the hill along with all the other trees they have.

    1. You're very welcome, Catherine; I'm glad you enjoyed it. And thanks for the interesting story: I'd never heard of a water wheel being used for powering sugaring.

  2. Wow....so interesting! Though I knew the fundamentals, your pictures and explanation explained much more. Thank you!

    1. I'm pleased that you found the post interesting. There's a great deal more complex information about the process that I didn't get into.