After a fresh snowfall we are out the door in snowshoes or crosscountry skis to track the local wildlife, their footprints clearly visible in the glistening powder. When least weasels detect you they burrow beneath the snow and reappear dozens of feet away, dashing quickly and quietly like fish in water. Mink follow the course of the stream, playing in the billowy snowdrifts along the banks, while raccoons wade in the water along the edge of the uplands. We find the telltale signs of a fox pursuing a rabbit, and the tracks lead us to scattered tufts of rabbit fur.
On such snowy days there are no apparent land divisions, as though our home sits in the untrammeled wilderness of the last century. From the window my 80 acres seem boundless. Black willows scattered along the spring brook lead the eye to the prairies, which seem to roll on westward indefinitely toward the Rocky Mountains.
Winter subdues nature, so we turn to indoor activities, family time, and assorted projects to amuse ourselves. No matter how hot and muggy the summer, in the dead of winter the sultry heat is only a fond memory. It was a great surprise to me initially, but it turns out the refurbished old farmhouse with radiant heating and good insulation provides a relaxing atmosphere in which one can do fulfilling things. And to think I couldn't see the logic in investing in the remodeling!
Before the big winter melt, Susan and I embark on one of our favorite wintertime traditions: maple syrup production. I first learned about syrup making when I was eight years old at the River Trail Nature Center in Northbrook, Illinois. My brothers and I learned how to tap the trees and collect buckets of the watery sap. We watched with great anticipation as it boiled down into thick sweet syrup, knowing that when it was ready we'd get to taste test it over vanilla ice cream that the ranger kept on hand for his most enthusiastic volunteers.
Since our prairie had few sugar maples, we made a sweet deal, so to speak, with neighboring farmers; they'd let us tap their maple trees in exchange for pints of finished syrup. Some of the old-timers reminisced about tapping many of the same trees to make syrup and sugar candy when they were young, and they were happy to let us at the trees. Getting started was a bit of an ordeal, but we soon converted the old granary into a sugar shack, complete with a fifteen-foot-long maple syrup evaporator, two four-hundred-gallon bulk tanks, and a large stainless-steel sink. It occupied the entire granary and put Susan and me in the maple sugaring business.
Most of the maples grow on slopes facing north by northeast or along the terraces of drainage routes, where they escape exposure to winter winds as well as desiccating dry winds and summer heat. Fortunately, they also escaped the historic wildfires that once swept the prairie on the surrounding uplands.
To get the trees set, we pull our ash toboggan through a few feet of snow with the necessary equipment: a chainsaw with the bit-holding attachment we use to drill the tap holes, a bag of taps, coils of plastic piping, and other assorted connectors and tools. At each tree we drill a diagonal hole, then gently pound a tap upward into it. During peak production we have four hundred taps on the ridge-top maples, connected to a gravity-fed pipeline system that runs down to covered bulk tanks at the bottom of the ridge.
After a day of sap collection, we drive a pickup truck to the tanks and pump the sap into our hauling tank to take back to the sugar shack. There we put it into the stainless-steel milk coolers. On a good day, Susan and I return towing a full three-hundred-gallon tank. Every few days, after collecting about eight hundred gallons of sap, we fire up the evaporator and start making syrup. Sometimes we stand over the vats throughout the night, stirring the simmering sap and breathing the swirling, sweet vapors. Neighbors love to come over to feed the fire and dip their fingers in the goo in anticipation of a big bowl of homemade ice cream drenched with fresh syrup. It is a real com munity event, with everyone chattering away as the sap condenses. The real fun is pouring the cooked liquid through a strainer and bottling the syrup. In our best years we produce more than a hundred gallons of the most delicious syrup imaginable.
Soon after we started making syrup, Big Bud showed up as though he'd followed a star to the manger. Born in Vermont, Bud has syrup making in his blood, and it's something he had missed in the nearly three decades he'd lived in Wisconsin. Bud taught us how to make maple taffy, which involves carefully simmering the syrup to a thicker consistency without scorching it. At the right moment, he'll ladle it onto prepared areas of clean white snowdrifts or ice, causing it to crystallize immediately. As it cools, but before it freezes, he'll pick up the straps of semi-rigid glassy goop and start pulling it in all directions. Soon the clear, glassy substance is transformed into white taffy, which he lays out on dry strips of paper to cool further.
Every year Bud's family back in Vermont sends him a few bottles of syrup and maple syrup candy. Vermont's maple season goes on a few weeks longer than ours, so we can always count on him showing up a few weeks after our syrup making has ended with some samples of the latest vintage of Vermont's finest. We get out our Wisconsin blend and set the two side by side to debate the quality differences and "grade" the syrup. Sometimes ours will score higher, at which point Bud usually bribes us with a gift of the maple syrup candies his relatives send. So scoring be damned, that candy always wins the day for Vermont.
We certainly don't mind substituting the syrup season for an early spring. I can't object to feeding the woodstove once every few days to keep the farmhouse warm instead of twice daily in an extended winter. And once those solar panels started generating heat, it helped offset the wood burning. When the sap begins to run milky and miller moths come out, Susan and I shut down the syrup production and begin to scour the seed catalogs, mentally preparing for another lovely spring.
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