I enjoy remembering my very first taste of genuine maple syrup. Looking back, I regret I didn't learn more about the process of collecting sap and making maple syrup. Nevertheless, every March the old pump house attached to our neighbor's barn smelled of burning wood and the mouth watering sweet aroma of boiling sugar maple sap.
Across the dirt road from our dairy farm, our elderly neighbors Claude and Clara Watkins, quietly collected sap from the big, black-barked sugar maple trees that filled their woodlands. My dad rented their farm, including the barn that we used for some of dad's Holstein young stock.
And since I was the one who typically made the short trip to Claude and Clara's place to do the chores, I was also the one who constantly dipped a finger into the bubbling mixture of sap inside the long metal vat that sat on top of the wood burning kitchen stove. My, my, how sweet it was. The longer the sap boiled the sweeter it became.
Maple syrup is a marvelous mixture. Pure liquid sugary sap is drawn from sugar maple, red maple, silver maple or box elder trees and is boiled until the sap becomes syrup. According to literature on the subject, some Native American cultures relied heavily on the annual bounty.
One legend is told that:
"An older chief by the name of Woksis was in rather a bad mood after being contradicted by younger braves at a council meeting. On his way home in the spring of the year he rid himself of some of his anger by tossing a tomahawk at a maple tree. He left it in the tree until the following morning when he went hunting with other braves. His wife observed a colorless liquid dripping from the tree's wound and put her birch bark bucket at the base of the tree to catch the liquid. She did this so as not to have to walk all the way to the river for water, as she was heavy with papoose. She prepared maize and squash with the liquid and the chief was drawn to the sweet flavor."
Aboriginal people kept time by observing the phases of the moon. For Native Americans who lived in sugar bush country, March was known as the "Sap Moon" or "Sugar Moon". Gashes were cut into maple trees, sap was collected in birch bark containers or in hollowed-out logs, and then boiled. For the most part, early Native Americans were not interested in maple "syruping" but were primarily interested in maple "sugaring." If not properly sealed in some sort of storage container, syrup is hard to keep fresh. Therefore, the American Indian way was to convert syrup into sugar.
Early American journals describe "grain sugar" as being made from the constant stirring of boiling syrup until crystallization occurred. Boiling the sap until just before crystallizing produced "cake sugar." This was then poured into formed containers to make the cakes. "Wax sugar" or "gum" was prepared by pouring boiled syrup onto snow or ice. The syrup would solidify instead of crystallizing and consequently became chewy and good to eat.
James Hull, a member of the Grand Portage band of Chippewa Indians and direct descendent of Chief White Crane, and whose story "A Day in the Sugar Bush" first appeared in the March-April 1964 edition of The Conservation Volunteer magazine, wrote in his piece about "Negon" on her second day of a maple run more than 200 years ago.
Negon was a band member of the Reindeer Chippewa led by Chief Speckled Lynx of Grand Portage in pre-territorial Minnesota. Hull wrote, "After emptying the pans (made of birch bark) at the first 10 of the 300 trees which Negon has tapped, she finds that her carrying buckets are full."
Without resting, Negon made dozens of trips to the "sugar lodge" where she dumped her sap into larger birch bark kegs until they, too, were full. Hull completed his story of Negon by writing that by perhaps midnight, "she will have taken off the last of three batches of sugar." He continued, "Only then can she thank the Manitou for her three buckets of sugar from the 60 buckets of sap and crawl wearily into her bearskin robe to marshal her strength for the new day of toil ahead."
Most people today harvest maple sap to produce maple syrup. For some people it's a hobby of passion and something to look forward to every spring. For others it is big business. Surprisingly, it takes about 35 to 40 gallons of sap to produce just one gallon of syrup. Obviously it takes a lot of maple trees, a lot of sap, and a lot of hard work to make a lot of syrup.
It is the moon when trees of the forest come back to life. As the days grow longer and the sun's warmth does its magic melting act, trees awaken, sap flows, and soon spiles and pails will be toted to the sugar bush with high hopes for warm days, freezing nights and free flowing sweet sugary sap.
'Tis March again; time for maple syruping, and time to get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.