April 2

April 2, 2010


WEATHER: Paralyzingly hot.

THE CROP IS IN. Syrup is the first agricultural crop of the year.

SOME DATA:  87% of the crop was made by March 19.

In 1988 we also finished up on April 1. In 2000 the last day was March 23.

March 26 was the only frozen day in March – this is new, and newsworthy.

PHASE I: Tapping, Feb. 16-25

PHASE II: Boiling, Feb. 28-April 1

PHASE III: Cleanup, April 1- ?  There is no resting until all the taps have been knocked out of the trees and rinsed. With all this hot weather it is especially imperative that we finish this task quickly.

Cleanup began yesterday evening when Lew hiked into the sugarbush to set up the water stations with sections of plastic pipe. The station near the Podium uses a spring; the two stations over on Morningside plug into a small brook.

We carry backpack fruit sprayers that hold four gallons each and walk up one line and down the next. At each tree we pull out the spout with a special tool,  fit the nozzle of the sprayer over the spout and give it a little squirt. Then we twist the spout onto its fitting where it stays until next February. 

This tubing cleanup is good work. It offers an opportunity to thank  each tree and to wish it well for the summer. And the woods feel alive and hopeful.

MACRO and MICRO: Peepers.

NEWS FROM THE VILLAGE: A 93 year-old friend exclaims over goldfinches drinking from a melting icicle.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “The horses are looking a little rough.”  (so said a Hinesburg farmer and sugarmaker at the tail end of sugar season. When I worked for him in the ’70’s  he gathered the sap buckets with his team of horses pulling a sled.)


April 1

April 1, 2010

MORNING QUOTE: “You think you’ve seen every imaginable thing that could go wrong until something’s thrown at you that’s devastating.”

FIVE MINUTES LATER: “I can’t believe I did that! If that doesn’t ever take the cake!  [expletives deleted]

A NEW MISTAKE!  We stopped collecting sap at 2:30 a.m. since it had turned milky, and in the morning Lew ran the reverse osmosis machine as usual. But he directed the concentrated sap into a tank already three-quarters filled with pure water (permeate). That perm water was supposed to be for the final RO rinse of the year. Tap water is not pure enough, and rinsing the RO is one of those extremely important, behind-the-scenes chores.

WHAT TO DO? Drain and rinse the contaminated tank, and start over in hopes that enough raw sap remains to create a sufficient volume of permeate water.

WEATHER: Downright hot, I but forgot to look at the thermometer.

BOILING STATUS: Day 19 I think. The last day in 2010 of firing up the arch.

SYRUP STATUS: Total gallon count: 2752, or .41 gallons of syrup per tap. We have done better only twice in the past. We ended on Grade A Dark. Our neighbor who does backyard sugaring took away the sweet ( a noun) remaining in the front pan. She will boil it down in a homestyle rig in her family’s garage.

ARCHIVAL END-OF-SEASON NOTES: …am feeling end-of-the-year symptoms. My mind feels unsteady – I must remind myself that when sugaring is over I will be able to think clearly again. Perspective on problems becomes distorted several weeks into sugaring….Absent-minded. Thought I could fill the wash tank for the RO in my sleep – not so…..The weepy part of sugar season. all seems unfortunate, impossible…..Will I one day feel nostalgic for this day of sitting in the corner of the sugarhouse, on Day Twenty-Two, feeling incredibly sleepy and aching as I hear the Mama’s and Papa’s harmonize? ….I cannot cope with the English language…

MACRO: Snowmelt from Mt. Bend is still feeding Falls Brook.

MICRO: Walking down the driveway toward the valley, warm air against the cheek. Walking up the driveway, cold mountain air against the cheek.

MUSIC TO BOIL BY: Hank Williams, honky-tonk country.

March 31

March 31, 2010

WEATHER: Low in the 30’s, high today 46, overcast, breezy.

SAP STATUS: The sap keeps running day and night, tapering off during the night. Today it ran less than yesterday, a predictable result of no freezing nights. The sap is very weak, like most end-of-season sap.

BOILING STATUS: Day 18. The syrup is a bit darker than yesterday’s, no surprise.

THE FAT LADY has been warming up for a few days; we expect to hear her  break into her aria tomorrow. She is not the only fat one – the maple buds are fat and swollen. And the rhubarb is coming up, the red-winged blackbirds are back, and the woodsy section of the driveway is past mud season. Old-timers speak of the frog run, when the last sap run coincides with the sound of the first peepers. I only recall a few frog runs in the thirty years we’ve been sugaring here, occurring in mid to late April.

DINNER IN THE SUGARHOUSE, post script: At the same time we’re hidden away from the whole world, we are firmly at the center of the whole world – the sugarhouse during a night boil.

THE CREW:  The neighborhood boys who ran up after school day after day to fill their Dixie cups with hot syrup and then tear around our place – climbing on the woodpile, making forts up near the cupola, pushing each other on the barrel dollie  – are now in their twenties: strong, alert and keen on sugaring. This year we have two main guys who live across the way. We’ll call them at 9:30 am and say we need help starting at 2:30 pm, or we may not know until 2:30 pm that we need help at 6 pm. It’s impossible to plan ahead. When they get here, we can’t even tell them when the work day will end – it could be 8 pm or 2 am.

Many other younger Nebraska Valley kids, girls and boys, help out part-time serving sugar-on-snow, stacking wood, scrubbing, cleaning tubing, canning syrup, making maple cream and sugar and working in the woods.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “Yuhhhhh,” spoken musically and with finality.

March 30

March 31, 2010

WEATHER: Low in the 30’s, high today 41, rainy.

SAP STATUS: The sap has been running since Monday morning, in particular the Keystone and Maresan taps.

BOILING STATUS: Today is Day 17. We started around noon and at this posting are still boiling. Since it’s a cool rainy day, the sugarhouse seems especially cozy. The rain pushes the steam down. From the main road one-third mile away, tufts of white steam accent the somber hillside. On warmer days the steam dissipates more readily.

PRACTICAL LESSON OF THE DAY: Remember to wear a thick shirt or a Johnson wool jacket with long sleeves when you are drawing syrup from the pans or stoking. I stripped down to a thin cotton shirt with long sleeves and spilled boiling hot sap onto my arm while scooping from the back pan. Better to perspire than to risk a burn. (Mine was not serious.)

SUPPER IN THE SUGARHOUSE: Meatloaf, sweet potatoes and salad brought up by the mother of the crew, biscuits baked in maple syrup for dessert. Some of us sat on the back bench, dangling our legs and feeling hidden away from the whole world.

ARCHIVAL JOURNAL ENTRY, March 30, 2005: W  McG, a first-grader, ate copious amounts of foam rising off the sap in the float box, exclaiming, “This tastes like regular foam!”

March 28

March 28, 2010

WEATHER: Yesterday sparkled – the sun was warm and the air chilly, staring the day at 5 degrees, climbing to 34. No sap run, just too cold.

Last night’s low was 26 and today was overcast, high 38. The sap ran poorly this afternoon but the run is picking up this evening. It is raining.

VERMONT MAPLE OPEN HOUSE WEEKEND: Nine years ago the state maple organization initiated this event, copying what Maine has been doing for years. Some visitors hop from sugarhouse to sugarhouse; some stop in at just one, for sugar-on-snow or to soak up the steam. Momentum for this event grows each year. I met a few families who now plan their Vermont vacations around open house weekend.

MACRO: A steady flow of visitors all weekend.

MICRO: A three-year old picking up a long dangly wad of sugar-on-snow with his fingers and not being able to cram it into his mouth.

March 25

March 25, 2010

WEATHER: It did finally freeze last night, and warmed up quickly to 50, bluebird until the afternoon. Evening drizzle, still 40 at 10 pm and raining hard. Predicted to turn radically colder overnight.

SAP STATUS: All the bustle and bluster last evening were for only a few inches of sap in the tanks. The run petered out, and by 5 pm the lines froze. By 9 am the ice began to belch out of the main lines into the vacuum tub. We stayed by the tub to ensure that the pump could keep up with this alarming torrent of loose sap ice.

The new lines ran well today, Keystone and Maresan, partly due to being cold taps – higher on the hill or with a northern exposure.

NOTES FROM THE SUGARBUSH, from our interns who walked lines with the crew:

MACRO: I thought it ws really beautiful. It was great to be there.

MICRO: How easy it is for R to get up the hill!

Lots of deer poop.

Drinking sap directly from the tree.

Intricate network of tubing.

That tool – the red tool – is so cool.

Watching the bubbles – they’re like little passengers.

Got some cinnamon fern.

The brook.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: I found a lot of Huperziceae [common name: fur moss] with intact spores that look like yellow moons.

March 22

March 22, 2010

WEATHER: Drizzly rain all day, steady rain this evening, high aound 40. No sap run.

PROSPECTS FOR THIS WEEK: There is rampant speculation about when and if we will have another run.

NOTES FROM MARCH 22, 1999: Started boiling at 6 am. Wind beating at buildings, driving downward through the cupola into the pans. Waves in the front pan, hot ones.

Problems: 1) Too much sap. it ran all night, naughty, naughty.

2) Sap intake valve frozen (a pre-boiling dilemma)

3) Power went out. HELP!

4) No one checked the pump room after 3) and as a result the pump smoked away and the release pump did something bad which I don’t understand and never will. Naughty release pump!

5) What? No vacuum? Must be a break in the main line – the wind wreaking its havoc.

6) Density problems mostly all day.

7) The pump on the filter press went. Lew was at a meeting so the crew filled nearly two drums with unfiltered syrup. It took him two hours to replace the pump. Then we had to run all that syrup through the front pan again. Beautiful syrup, though.

8) Flood in the RO room due to misdirected permeate water.

9) E. noticed that the hydrometer was bouncing and bubbling out of its cup. Cracked, useless.

10) Fitting blew off in sap shed. No one free to fetch Lew a wrench. He finally let the sap gush out while he ran down to find the wrench.

P.S. Pump room door had been closed during the night. Temp. in that room rose to 110 F. Tropical  nightmare.


March 19

March 20, 2010

WEATHER: A repeat of yesterday. T-shirt weather.


SEVEN DAY NITER PRIMER: Friday. Early and mid-season syrup filters nicely through the cones, but the niter in dark syrup clogs them up. The syrup sits in the cones and cools off. You must lift out the cone and pour the cool syrup into a clean cone, then quickly rinse the niter out of the soiled one. Often the dark syrup must be transferred three or four times. Sugarmakers with this old-style filter dread making dark syrup. That slimy niter clogs the felts so darn fast!

NOONTIME VIEWS FROM THE BUSH: LOOKING UP, lacy silver twigs of sugar maples, opposite twigs reaching for the sun in a gesture of praise. LOOKING DOWN, patches of wet corn snow, new lagoons where the snow just melted, or dry crackly beech leaves. LOOKING ACROSS: gas bubbles chugging silently along in the tubing lines, put out by the tree in addition to the sap.

MACRO: It’s hot.

MICRO: Smell of the earth for the first time. Moths in the sap tanks.

QUOTES OF THE DAY: “What it boils down to is the bottom line.”   “You mean the red line, the top one.” [a reference to the hydrometer]

March 15

March 16, 2010

WEATHER: 30’s by night, high 40’s by day, overcast. The sap is still running.

TO BOIL OR NOT? Some days it is a hard call. Today we gambled that the run would be slow and we would have room to spare in the sap tanks. This relentless season is taking its toll and we need to catch our breath. So we decided not to boil. But the sap ran surprisingly well this afternoon, and all the tanks are full at 10 pm, with the sap still running. Instead of sleeping, L. must start up the RO (reverse osmosis machine) soon and monitor it every couple of hours all night. If only it would freeze tonight as forecast and choke off the run.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “No rest for the weary.”

SEVEN DAY NITER PRIMER. Monday:   Niter is what you don’t get when you purchase a gallon of maple syrup; like coffee grounds, it stays behind in the filter. Every time you boil sap, either in a canning kettle in the kitchen or in a modern evaporator, stuff precipitates out of it: niter. Sometimes it resembles sand, hence the common name for it, sugar sand. The quality of the niter changes day to day and year to year. Sugarmakers consider niter a nuisance for two reasons: it burns onto the sap pans and it clouds up the syrup. They devise ways to filter the hot syrup so it flows clear when you pour it over your pancakes or vanilla ice cream.

MACRO: Hillsides taking on a reddish purple hue.

MICRO: Red maple buds are round, red and swollen. As always the red maples are ahead of the sugar maples.

March 14

March 15, 2010

WEATHER: Repeat of March 13, with intermittent rain showers. Sap still running.


SYRUP STATUS: Pushing 1800 gallons, grade is dropping due to lack of freezing nights.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “Man, is that doing that again?”  (Uttered by L. at the upper sap shed after testing out a new method of rinsing the giant tanks up there.) What he heard was the vacuum pump suddenly shifting its tone from a tenor groan to an alto whine.

We make syrup with our ears, alert to changes in the pitch of the boiling sap, the roaring fire and the filter press pumping finished syrup. We listen to the reverse osmosis machine in the next room. The timer goes off and we check the temperature of  cleaning water heating up in another room. And we listen to music on the boom box and sing along.

ARCHIVAL JOURNAL ENTRY: O Brother Where Art Thou has just the right feel as sugarhouse music. It goes with muddy boots, sticky floors, steamy pans, tired sugarers. And it makes all right with the world.

MACRO: Many weekend visitors.

MICRO: Bright-eyed eight-year-old triplets, two girls and a boy, sitting on the back bench, delighted by the steam as it ebbs and flows over their heads.