Every spring a corner of our backyard is transformed into a scene that could be from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books.
Two columns of bricks create a makeshift stove, over which giant rectangular pans sit atop a steel table-like structure. Barrels of scrap hardwood, collected throughout winter at our carpenter shop especially for this, stand nearby. As my sister Sonia adds wood, sparks spew from the roaring fire as whistles and crackles create a merry tune. Steam rises from the gently bubbling Manitoba maple sap, filling the air with a sweet aroma. While the sap is boiling, the water-like liquid changes into beautiful golden-brown syrup.
Growing up, the ‘Laura books’ were among my favourites and the maple-sugaring story from Little House in the Big Woods captured my imagination. Little did I know back then a family member would re-enact this treasured memory every year, using our native trees. Each time it brings back happy reading memories, as the last traces of winter disappear.
Weeks before the cooking begins, Sonia goes out and taps trees around our colony. Using spiles she’s made from PVC pipes to tap the trees, the sap drips into repurposed juice or vinegar jugs.
“I’ve tapped 100 trees this year, the most I’ve ever done,” she happily informed me. Less snow, coupled with an earlier-than-normal thaw made that possible, putting Sonia right in her element — enjoying nature and producing a nutritious treat, which she shares with family and friends.
Each year is different when it comes to collecting sap. When spring is nice and mild one week then much colder and wintery the next, it causes the sap flow to be much slower. Ideal conditions are created when nights are -5 C, and daytime temperatures are around +5 C. Maple sapping is a long process, and it takes about 40 gallons of sap to get one gallon of syrup. This year yields have been better for Sonia, she was able to get a gallon of syrup from 34 gallons of sap.
Sonia’s mode of transportation to tap trees and collect sap is usually a golf cart. Loaded with a drill, spiles, pails and jugs she makes her rounds twice a day. With many of the maple trees in wooded areas, getting to them can be an adventure when there’s lots of snow. One year she had to crawl over three- to four-foot drifts to get to the trees. This works well when the pails are empty, but gets more challenging when they’re full of sap, especially since you don’t want to lose any of the sweet goodness.
During wet springs, dodging puddles and mud makes for a different set of challenges. But Sonia takes everything in stride, even if it means plodding through thigh-high snow or trudging through ankle-deep mud, balancing two pails of sap. Of six sisters in our family, she’s the one who embraces the outdoors the most, savouring each season as it comes and enjoying whatever it brings.
Sometimes she takes our five-year-old nephew Jakobi to help collect sap. He loves being outdoors as much as Sonia, and feels very important taking the jugs from the tree and emptying the sap into a pail. However, he tends to get distracted by the puddles that call him for some splash time. One day there were new baby chicks in the barn.
Driving past the barn he asked Sonia, “While you collect sap, I will stay with the baby chicks. Will that work?”
“How about we both collect sap first,” Sonia responded. “Then we’ll visit the chicks later?”
Sonia also makes maple butter, which I enjoy even more than the syrup. A rich layer of this natural goodness spread on fresh homemade bread makes for a delicious and nutritious snack. I close my eyes, savour this seasonal morsel, and reminisce.
I’m a little girl again, licking maple sugar snow candy with Laura.
“Grandma stood by the brass kettle and with a big wooden spoon she poured hot syrup on each plate of snow. It cooled into a soft candy, and as fast as it cooled they ate it. They could eat all they wanted, for maple sugar never hurt anybody.”
Linda Maendel lives, works and writes at Elm River Colony, and is author of Hutterite Diaries: Wisdom From My Prairie Community