Spring in Vermont means one thing: mud. We also make maple syrup sometimes.
When we’re not in class or relishing a few fleeting hours of sleep, the Forestry Crew at Sterling College spends most of March and April in the sugar house. To make one gallon of syrup, it takes around forty or fifty gallons of maple sap. This we collect, slipping and staggering through the melting snow, from the maple trees we tapped in our sugarbush. On a normal afternoon we get anywhere from 125 to 200 gallons of sap. It takes hours of boiling, late into the night, to reduce those gallons and gallons of sap into sweet, delicious maple syrup. So like I said, we spend a lot of time in the old sugar house.
As a kid in southern Vermont I used to help with the sugaring in spring. The neighbors used to enlist us kids to tap the trees in February and range around the maple stands all spring with buckets, collecting. They knew the value of high-energy, free labor. Pretty smart, they were. For our trouble we were invited to the steamy sugar house after supper, to watch the sap roll and bubble in the pans and smell the sugar as it condensed. We’d bring shot glasses and grubby fingers with which to syphon finished syrup from the sock filter. I, most of all, loved to watch my neighbor check the for the right sugar density with his scoop. He’d dip it into the boiling syrup and hold it up vertically, looking for it to make wide sheets instead of watery drips.
This year as part of my work on the crew, I volunteered to monitor the sugar density, just as I had seen my neighbor do for all those groggy, sugar-fueled evenings during my childhood. And so it was for a couple weeks of groggy, sugar-fueled evenings this spring, I made the call when to draw off the syrup into our sock filter. It’s a slow job, to be honest, and you spend most of your time staring sleepily at a thermometer, waiting for it to reach 219 degrees, and a little time stoking the stove. You listen to music and watch games of darts. But every once in a while, that little needle gets to seven degrees above boiling, and you jump up and dip your scoop in the boiling sap, and you hold it up and watch those pretty sheets form. You smell that steam and turn that valve, and draw off that sweet stuff, and there’s not much else like it in the world.