September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.

Maple syrup season extra sweet this year

By Ron Johnson- | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

Is the arrival of spring made real by the first robin hopping across a lawn? Or is it here when the first skein of geese wings its way northward overhead? Maybe it arrives when the first red-wing blackbird trills from the stem of a wind-tossed cattail.
For me, a certain sign of spring is the first drip, drip of maple sap into a pail. I've been tapping spiles, as the spouts are called, into maple trees for many of the last 25 springs. It's a combination of art and science that I began delving into when I owned 10 acres near Marshfield, Wis.
The tapping habit has followed me to Crawford County, where Jessica and I practice this old craft on our nine up-and-down acres that's between Plum Creek and the Kickapoo, Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers.
Sugar maples, known scientifically as Acer saccharum, and their close cousins like soft maples, begin waking late each winter. When daytime temperatures reach or exceed 32 degrees Fahrenheit, and the nighttime mercury dips below freezing, the sap begins to rise.
That's also the time for syrup makers to haul out their spiles, hammers and pails and head to the woods. For me, the woods is the two, spring-fed ravines on either side of the house.
Last year's early spate of hot weather left me with an especially strong itch to get into the maple woods this year. Last year, thanks to the heat, my maple season lasted a mere three days.
But this year I hauled my brace and seven-eighths-inch bit out of the shed Feb. 24. I tapped 17 trees that day, letting the bit corkscrew into each trunk about an inch-and-a-half. I was immediately rewarded: Several trees began yielding sap right away.
After drilling each hole, I gently tapped a spile in and hung a pail on the accompanying hook. On March 2, I tapped two more trees, with two more following on March 3.
Mine is a small-scale syruping operation, I admit. But I'm not out to steal the crown from Quebec - just make a bit for the fun of it and to drizzle onto hot, homemade pancakes.
My records show that my sap gathering started March 16 - four days before the arrival of astronomical spring. On that day, I lugged to the shed where my evaporator sets all of seven gallons, eight ounces of sap.
Using the old 40:1 rule of thumb that reckons 40 gallons of sap can be boiled down to one gallon of syrup, that first day's harvest would yield a whopping 22.6 ounces of syrup - less than a pint-and-a-half, and not nearly enough to address a year's worth of griddle cakes and French toast.
But the season improved as the days rolled by. On days when I gathered sap, my season low came on March 23, with just 174 ounces. The high day was April 4, with 1,920 ounces, or 15 gallons.
Of course, it's not the number of cows in the barn that matters, but the pounds of milk in the bulk tank. So it is with mapling. Ounces and gallons of sap are one thing. But what about the quantity of syrup made?
Well, my maple trees beat the old 40:1 rule, and they beat it pretty hard. In all, I lugged - by hand and on foot - 15,700 ounces of sap to the evaporator. That's 122 gallons, 83.2 ounces. From it I made (drum roll, please) 5.17 gallons of syrup.
That boils down to (pun indeed intended) one gallon of syrup for each 23.72 gallons of sap. So the 40:1 rule was nearly cut in half this spring.
I have a couple of theories as to why the sugar content of the sap was so unusually high. Maybe most of the trees I tapped are just naturally sweet - kind of like the cow here and there whose milk tests at 4.5 percent butterfat.
My second theory is that last year's drought had something to do with it. Grapes, I am told, contain more sugar than usual when they're grown under conditions that provide just enough water - but not too much. Last year certainly did not provide too much water here in southwest Wisconsin.
Whatever the reason for this unusually sweet harvest, I'll take it. Now, with our maple season ended, I must clean the equipment and stow it neatly away for next spring.
In the meantime, we have jar upon jar of amber sweetness sealed away. Now where's my cookbook and that tried-and-true recipe for whole wheat pancakes?
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