March 23

March 23, 2010

WEATHER: Another drizzly day, in the 30’s to 40. No sap run.

MACRO: A baking dish of maple syrup biscuits fresh out of the oven.

MICRO: Imperfectly round, brown biscuits swimming in hot maple syrup.

Ten minutes later, the syrup has sugared up. Spooning it onto your plate with your second helping.

Salty and sweet on the tongue, the taste of tradition.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: Everyone is saying how red the hills are, but they’re not that red.”

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 21

March 21, 2010

WEATHER: Wet accumulating snow in the morning, melting snow in the afternoon, high near 40. No sap run.

SEVEN DAY NITER PRIMER, Sunday. The easy way to filter syrup is to pour it into a jug and wait. The niter settles out as sludge in the bottom of the jug. Then why don’t sugarmakers use this method? It is impossible to rinse the niter off the bottom of 30 or 40-gallon barrels, and no one wants to buy niter, not the customer who is buying a gallon nor the big distributor who pays by the pound. There is no easy way; filtering syrup is a chore. But my, how that clear syrup does glow in a glass flask by a sunny window!

ARCHIVAL JOURNAL ENTRY: March 21, 2000. Yesterday evening Lew sent 500 gallons of sap down the drain by inadvertently opening the sap tank gate valve in the RO room. Clyde and I heard an unusual clicking sound, plus the sap tank gauge wasn’t reading, but we didn’t figure it out until Lew woke up from his evening power nap.

Lew had to rebuild the pipe between the arch doors. A trip to Leo’s Welding in Moville for me.

Major flue leak while cleaning flues. Pans drained, disassembled, flues reshaped, leak soldered. Tools – buckets of sweet – guys – filth, for a few hours.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: Sugar season is a cross between childbirth and a vacation.

March 20

March 21, 2010

WEATHER: Balmy this morning, chilly this evening. A northwest wind set in and suggested a change of weather. Moody skies.

SAP STATUS: No sap in the tanks.

BOILING STATUS: No boiling. Will we boil again?  No one knows. One neighbor said years ago, “Sugar season isn’t over until the fat lady sings.” We haven’t heard her yet.

SEVEN DAY NITER PRIMER, Saturday.  Larger sugaring operations filter syrup by pumping it through a filter press. First they stir diatomaceous earth into the hot syrup. DE is a white powder of one-celled organisms deposited on ancient ocean floors. It does not dissolve in the syrup but forms a suspension. The DE sticks to paper filters lining a whole rack of square metal waffles and spacers. As the syrup passes through, the DE absorbs the niter. When the filter press is full, the crew takes it apart, replacing the paper filters and dumping the waffle-like cakes of mocha residue in a bucket. Lots of light syrup can be run through the filter press before it must be cleaned, not so with the dark syrup and its slimy niter.

MACRO: Nebraska Valley kids, two boys and a girl, cooking sugar-on-snow on the picnic table in front of the sugarhouse.

MICRO: The sixth-grader spooning bubbly syrup on a bowl of snow to test it.

The high school sophomore smiling as she cuts up pickles.

The third grader rolling up sugar-on-snow on his fork for the fifty-ninth time.

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 18

March 19, 2010

The adrenaline has worn off; we are living on vapor, waiting for a second wind, then a third and a fourth. I intended to write this entry last night after the boil, but at 2:30 am it was too much. And this is my second attempt to write yesterday’s entry because I was kicked offline by the dial-up connection we in Nebraska Valley must endure, and the draft disappeared.

What with all the fatigue and commotion I am quick to forget the ongoing miracle of the sap, the trees and the sun.

WEATHER: Very poor sugaring weather, low’s in the mid-thirties, high near 60. It feels like May.

SAP STATUS: Still running, but it resembles milky whey.

SYRUP STATUS: Dropped to Grade A Dark Amber. Gallon count nearly 2300. We speculate on whether or not the season is crashing or if we will get a shot of cold weather in time. People ask, “Is it a good sugar season?” We won’t know til it’s over.

CORRECTION: Some of you may have noted that Penn Station is not on K6 but at the top of K7.

THE HILLBILLIES: From L: “These two trees are not far from Penn Station but down in the city you’d never know they existed. They are at the top of a steep wanderlust line that goes through nothing for a ways. Then you see them, healthy but scraggly, dancing away at the top of the knoll, all moonshined up.”

SEVEN DAY NITER PRIMER: Thursday. Backyard sugarmakers, tapping just a few trees, may filter out the niter with cheesecloth draped over a colander. A more sophisticated apparatus is the filter tank. This tank is a high, rectangular metal box.Inside, three thick felt cones hang from a frame like upside-down dunce caps. You take paper filters, like coffee filters but in the shape of the dunce caps, and fasten them to the felt cones with clothes pins. Then you pour the hot pail of syrup into the cone and close the lid. You can hear the syrup dripping onto the bottom of the tank.

QUOTE OF THE DAY:  “In thirty-five years I’ve never seen a sugar season like this one.”

MUSIC TO BOIL BY: Ladysmith Black Mambazo

March 17

March 18, 2010

WEATHER: A decent freezing night last night, getting down to 26 for seven or eight hours. Today was the mildest yet, in the low 50’s and sunny. Good run.

MORNING CRISIS: Blew a hose trying to start up the RO before the line to the permeate tank thawed out. Down at the hardware store impatiently buying five feet of new hose, I told the owner it was a sugaring crisis and he said that’s all he’s been dealing with these days.

KEYSTONE, continued. The tubing here is state-of-the-art. Eight main lines run vertically up from the big main like tree trunks, and the skinny tap lines run into them like branches. Each tap line has only five to eight taps. The terrain dictates the layout: in a gentle bowl at the top of K6, many many tap lines converge at Penn Station.

SEVEN DAY NITER PRIMER, Wednesday. Technically, niter is malate of lime. It is not toxic but it could give you the runs. Some people prefer their syrup with the niter in it. They’ll catch the syrup in their cups as it is pouring off the evaporator and drink it straight up.

DRIVEWAY MACRO: Mud or mud-covered ice bordered by receding snowbanks, tall pines or brooks.

DRIVEWAY MICRO: All you hear is water flowing: spring runoff. All you feel is cold air emanating from the brooks.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “What is the other mistake I keep making? My mind is in such a fog I can’t think of it.”

March 16

March 18, 2010

WEATHER: Below freezing (27) for four hours last night, high today in high 40’s.

SAP STATUS: This warm weather sap is no longer as clear as a glacial lake.

SYRUP STATUS: As a result, the grade has dropped. Today we made borderline A Medium Amber/A Dark Amber syrup.  Passed the 2000 gallon mark today.

TOUR OF THE SUGARBUSH, continued: Starting back at the sugarhouse we’ll hike up to Keystone, the parcel of state-owned land we are tapping for the first time. This parcel fits between Morningside and the MainMain like a keystone, or like the space between the two arms of the letter V.

Keystone Main Line follows Herbie’s Highway, named after Herbie Leach who hauled logs out on this logging road in the 70’s and early 80’s. It ascends steeply at first, then moderates where it cuts close to Falls Brook. Just before  the Falls Brook crossing, we will leave Herbie’s Highway and follow the mainline up another logging road. The entire south and south-east flank of mountainside to our right is Keystone. The woods feel spacious and welcoming to hikers and snowshoers. There are many beautiful maples. Presiding over the higher, rougher terrain is The Old Foreman.

SEVEN DAY NITER PRIMER, Tuesday. The quality of the niter indicates how far along sugar season has progressed. During those early runs there is little niter, you don’t see it except as it sticks to the pans. If a sugarmaker dips her scoop into the trough and what comes up is half syrup and half sugar sand, she knows early season is over. She is happy to see the coarse, gritty sugar sand since it means the season is here to stay for awhile. And heavy, sandy niter filters well.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: ” M says to tell you she’s bringing dinner up.”

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.