Simply sweet and all natural.

By Lisa Waller

Maple syrup is one of nature’s most attainable sweetest pleasures with a little sweat equity and good time management.  I’m very fortunate to live in an area of Southwestern Ontario with a family that appreciates what nature offers us. We understand that nothing comes without hard work, and what comes from that hard work is maple syrup.

The art of making maple syrup is a skill taught to each generation in my family. We all know how to tap a tree and collect the sap, but only a few have the “syrup sense”. This is a feeling you get when the syrup is finished boiling down, and ready to strain and bottle. My son, at four and a half years, is the fifth generation to make maple syrup on the original family owned acreage. We still tap some of the same maple trees my great grandfather tapped. The original sugar shack washed away when the creek flooded, but the current one was built from salvaged parts of the original, but on higher ground. We’ve modernized some aspects, but have tried to keep the simplicity of the small family sugar shack intact.

The sugar shack is a small, approximately 10’x12’ corrugated metal shack which could hold four standing people comfortably. On the days when more than four people are helping, we take turns checking on the progress of the syrup in the shack to keep warm. The shack has a clay floor with a few pallets to keep things off the ground. Split wood runs along one wall and two metal boiling pans are the main focus.


We’ve also built a carport-like structure beside the sugar shack to accommodate the overflow of people visiting the sugar shack which some days amounts to dozens of family and friends. Inside the structure are a couple of picnic tables for the food people bring and a firepit outside allows us to cook a variety of foods. When the weather turns for the worst, at least we have shelter. 

Nothing can prepare a first timer for bad weather in clay soil. You will always be clay covered after a visit no matter how prepared you may be. Tall, rubber boots are a must, and you’re not broken in until you’ve lost a boot with the suction of the clay. If little ones are along, you’ll have laundry for days and dogs will need a good scrubbing after spending a day exploring the woods. It’s worth the laundry to experience nature giving us something as sweet and natural as maple syrup. Because of the clay, getting around can be difficult, even for motorized vehicles. You don’t want to stand in one spot too long or you may end up stuck.

The season begins when the days are warm and the ice and snow begin to melt, but the temperature needs to drop below freezing at night. Approximately seventy maple trees are tapped by family, friends and neighbours each spring. Cordless drills are used to tap each tree and some trees are tapped more than once. A spile is inserted into the hole and a metal pail hung on a hook to collect each drop of sap. Five generations ago, a hand drill was used, very labour intensive and time consuming. Some visitors insist on trying to use the original hand drill, but we’ve noticed that they revert to using the modern drill after the initial hole is finished.  Depending on the amount of volunteers and the weather, this job could take one to three days.

Twice a day the sap is collected, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. The exception is when the sap is “running hard”, more than usual. The exception is caused when there are warm sunny days, freezing nights, no north winds blowing, the perfect side of the tree must be tapped, the sun must be shining on it… the variables are extensive but possible. Some trees may produce a minimal amount of sap, the next tree may produce an abundant amount. It’s Mother Nature and Mother Earth working together with the spring season.

To make the job of collecting the sap more efficient, we use our ATV’s. This makes getting around the clay fields and to each of the trees quicker and even possible some years. The creek around part of the property overflows almost every spring which makes getting to some of the trees either difficult or impossible. Today many large maple syrup manufacturers use large plastic tubing attached to the trees, which is siphoned back to the sugar shack. This method is more efficient but not as authentic. We strap five gallon plastic pails to our ATVs rear and front racks, drive to each tree, empty the smaller metal pails into the larger plastic pails and transport them back to the sugar shack. In his youth, my father would walk from tree to tree through the clay fields, dumping the sap from the metal pails into two larger buckets which hung on either end of a wooden yoke balanced across his shoulders.

The sap is then dumped into a large 3’x8’x6” metal pan which holds approximately seventy gallons of sap. Forty gallons of sap equals one gallon of syrup. A fire is continuously stoked beneath the largest metal pan to bring the sap to a boil. Each year a number of trees must be cut down, split and piled just to keep the fires burning to boil down the sap which becomes maple syrup. The previous year’s wood gets stacked in the sugar shack and the new wood gets piled outside. The rotation of the wood ensures dry, seasoned wood is always at hand. Cutting, splitting, piling and rotating the wood is a laborious job, but is a necessity to the season.

Once a hard boil is achieved and the sap has boiled down some, it is moved to a smaller pan, approximately 2’x5’x6”. This smaller pan is also in the sugar shack and is where the magic happens. The heat can be concentrated on a smaller area, the heat can be regulated easier and the sap can be monitored closely once it’s in the smaller pan. Someone needs to constantly watch the boiling down process. This is where the “syrup sense” takes over. There is a very fine line from to sap to syrup and once you’ve gone past the point, then the syrup is ruined and becomes sugar or even burnt sugar. Only a few people at our sugar shack know when to pull the pan off the fire. The first two batches of the season are always the sweetest. Near the end of the season, the syrup loses its sugary taste.

Once the maple syrup is removed from the heat it is placed into old metal milk cans and taken back to the house for straining and bottling. A filter is stretched between a homemade metal structure and a large pot is set under the filter. The syrup is poured into the filter and drips through into the pot taking out any impurities. Impurities are usually bugs, sand and tree parts. When a pot is nearly full, it’s quickly replaced with a new one. The first pot is carried into the kitchen and the maple syrup is funneled into sterilized canning jars of various sizes, old glass jars and even sixty pounder alcohol bottles. Each jar is labeled with the year it is produced. These jars are pure liquid gold and are divided among the people who helped to produce them. Each batch is treated the same. The syrup season lasts between three and four weeks but Mother nature controls the duration. The season is finished when the trees start to bud or when we’ve bottled thirty to forty gallons of syrup, which is the result of twelve hundred gallons of sap.

By the end of the season everyone is tired, dirty and satisfied. Our family doesn’t make any money for our troubles; we only make friends for a lifetime. Every person who helps, takes home some of the sugary goodness. Any extra syrup is frozen until someone needs some during the coming year. Maple syrup freezes well and when needed, can be thawed out. The family tradition of making maple syrup is shared each year with many people who have an affinity for things that taste good.

Author's note:  We do not sell the maple syrup we produce. We give it away to people who help produce the syrup. This is not a business. We make the syrup for the pure enjoyment of making it and to pass along the knowledge of how people traditionally made maple syrup.  It’s a valuable lesson passed down from many generations.

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