With the slowly rising warmth of the sun, in the early days of the northern, spring it begins. The soft warmth of the afternoon sun heats the trunks of maples and the soil below, thawing the sugary water within maple trees, triggering the upward flow of sucrose rich liquid signalling the trees awakening for a new season of growth.
In Quèbec this also triggers a flurry of activity among maple syrup producers who descend upon their woodlots in preparation for the new harvest. There are taps to check, buckets to monitor, sugar shacks to tidy, firewood to gather. All in preparation for the short burst of activity, usually just a few weeks at most, triggered by the slowly increased dripping of the sap into collection buckets.
Given rather vague directions we found ourselves on a rural dirt road in the gauzy sunlight of a Saturday afternoon, a distinct chill still in the air, and patches of winter snow scattered about. Placing a call to our host he directed us to keep going a few more kilometers to where we found him waiting for us at the entrance to his property. Turning up the gravel lane between leafless maples rising towards the suns faint warmth we parked and proceed to the small sugar shack. Steam was already rising from the open vents indicating that the boiling down of maple water was well under way. Awaiting the rest of the group I noted everyone was dressed for the season. Warm layers, hats, mitts and waterproof footwear. Gathering around the blue farm tractor with the plastic container suspended from the back our group finally formed, with ages ranging from seven to seventy, we awaited instructions. Those being essentially to follow the tractor as it went down the various paths between the trees. Everyone would then take some plastic pails, and disperse to the nearest tree with a metal bucket hanging from it, and lift the tin cover. If there was liquid in the bucket, detach it from the metal tap and pour the sugary contents into the plastic pail. When our plastic buckets were filled, take it to the tractor where the buckets liquid will be poured into the big container. Thus began a flurry of activity. Everyone scattered about through the trees, Adults helped children peer into buckets and pour the liquid. Some buckets were near overflowing with maple water while others contained barely enough to cover to bottom. It was all variable but little by little as the water was filtered into the big container on the tractor we incrementally worked towards a full harvest. On this day the forest was relatively dry and everyone was able to reach every tree while remaining, mostly, mud free.
At long last every tree was checked and every pails content transferred . Our group began to trickle back towards the steaming sugar shack. This time the tractor trailed the group. Peeking inside the entrance to the boiling room I noted the crew was stoking the fire with new wood as clouds of steam rose to the vented rafters. It looked like some early scene from the industrial revolution, all fire, heat, steam and boiling water. Here the temperature, water level and condition of the boil were carefully checked.
A flurry of activity ensued. Outside children ran about through the trees as the cabin crew set to work. A hose was connected between the big container on the tractor and the interior of the sugar shack. A small pump was then fired up and the maple water transferred for boiling.
As the afternoon waned outside, inside the cabin the maple water reached a foamy boil and soon enough the first batch of hot syrup dripped out.
Two members of the crew headed into the trees to gather some snow, placing it in a long wood trough. Bespoke supports were assembled and the snow filled trough was placed on top. Everyone gathered round excitedly, and wooden ‘popsicle’ sticks were distributed. Soon our host emerged from the steaming cabin with a mug full of hot syrup, which he poured in a thick line across the snow, freezing the liquid into a solid caramel-like form which everyone gathered from the snow by swirling their sticks.
The syrup vanished in a flash of activity as the daylight receded to a calm blue stillness, the suns modest warmth evaporated and the trees turned to grey sticks.
With the frozen syrup now consumed, the focus of activity turned inwards to the cabin where attention centered on the kitchen area behind the boiling room. Here the wood stove had been fired up and tables prepared. Everyone brought a contribution to create a traditional meal associated with sugar shack workers in days past. While commercial sugar shacks have become more like restaurants serving full course meals here we made a meal from everyone's contributions. Baked ham, potatoes, baguette, homemade coleslaw and relish, sausages, eggs and other traditional foods circulated among the group, its warmth appreciated after a long day in the cool fresh air.
As the evening meal wound down the fire in the boiling room ebbed as our group began to collect their belongings and bit by bit everyone drifted away in the darkness. A fun, memorable and somewhat productive day behind us.