NEW FARMER JOURNAL: North Country School, Lake Placid NY

The sap also rises
Sugaring season brings with it a flood of memories and the pitter patter of sticky footprints.

By Laura Rickard
Posted May 12, 2005

Farmer-At-A-Glance

Laura Rickard recently graduated from Brown University with a degree in environmental studies. She is currently in the middle of a 12-month farm/garden internship at North Country School/Camp Treetops in Lake Placid, New York. For more information on North Country School, visit http://nct.org.

April, 2005. I once tried to explain maple syrup to my Ecuadorian host parents. Thinking myself the “ambassador to New England,” I had wrapped a few plastic jugs of Vermont Fancy in several t-shirts lining the bottom of my backpack. This was the first week of a four month-long stint studying comparative ecology—I lacked the vocabulary to explain a flat tire, let alone a Northern hemisphere biological process. So I did my best, pointed to the only tree in their tropical front yard (avocado), and strung a few haphazard Spanish phrases together. From then on, the miel de árbol (their phrase, meaning tree honey) was rationed stringently by my mamá, who would bring out a tiny pitcher of syrup along with the papaya juice only on exceptionally special mornings. The whole family developed a taste for it and unabashedly dropped hints that I should whip up a batch of pankekes for them. In the land of mangoes and passion fruit, I had wanted to introduce my new family to the nectar of the Northern hardwoods. I considered this cultural exchange a success.

And so sugaring season has just recently ended here in the North Country. A few days ago we had a particularly brisk morning, and I walked through the bush watching the crowns of the sugar maples stretch their limbs skyward. I heard the hollow knocking of a pileated woodpecker, later spotting his red cap flashing in and out of a gnarled snag. I could stop walking, close my eyes, tune my ears to the steady patter of sap dripping into aluminum buckets…and for one transcendental moment, there would be no seedlings to water, soil to mix, GREs to study for, animals to feed, children to teach, compost to shovel. There would be just this collection of trees framed against blue sky, the snow-scraped nose of Algonquin Mountain peeking in. Luckily, 4th graders are good for interrupting daydreaming interns. I stopped gazing lovingly at the trees and organized my crew.

I had recruited a large, rather boisterous crew to collect sap from the 300+ buckets scattered in the several acres between the sugar shack and Round Lake. Children flitted through the woods like small birds. Others shuffled slowly towards the collecting tank, dragging their sloshing sap buckets awkwardly between their legs with two arms. Most everyone had a saturated pant leg or jacket sleeve. I looked as if I had wet my Carhartts, but I couldn’t have been happier. The sun was shining, the sap was flowing, and our 400-gallon collecting tank was brimming full.

I remember John (my boss) telling me, “There’s something magical about sugaring when children are involved.” The magic is palpable: Libby’s 7th graders, running from bucket to bucket with hydrometers, measuring Brix level as part of a math lesson on percentages. A 4th grader scoops a shiny beetle out of a sap bucket for further inspection. Two students man the sap pans, skimming foam off the boiling liquid. Jeremy, our maintenance guru, stokes the fire underneath the evaporator while 7 year-old Alex passes him red pine logs. And, perhaps, the most magical occurrence of all: the tree honey itself, a marvelous solution of sucrose and glucose that, when boiled, renders the sugar shack a steamy lair of intoxicating fumes. As the official “canner,” I hand out Dixie cup samples to everyone after each “draw” from the syrup pan. When boiling days keep us in the sugar shack far past the lunch bell, we sneak extra samples for our coffee. Jeremy seasons his hard-boiled egg with sap, and John even dunks his grilled cheese in syrup. I, however, prefer our medium amber straight up.

Lugging several quarts of syrup from suburban Connecticut to south of the equator seemed an arduous task at the time. Little did I understand the work involved in producing that syrup! The process began in earnest back in August, when campers helped split and stack several cords of firewood. The school kids took over in September, transforming a pile of telephone pole-sized red pines into 3-foot logs. We let the wood dry out over the winter, sheltered in the sugar shack from the tall drifts of snow. By the last week in March, with the help of students, we drilled tap holes and hung buckets from spiles. To date, the children have hand-carried more than half-a-ton of sap from trees to collecting points, not to mention the boiling, skimming, filtering, and grading they have also been part of. We have filled, washed, polished, and labeled the 50 gallons of syrup produced. Just thinking about all that work makes me feel justified in haranguing any student who leaves a puddle of untouched syrup on his breakfast plate.

If I have any regrets about being involved so intensely in the sugaring process, it is only that I have been missing other excitement around the farm. For months, it seemed our most newsworthy event was the free hat included in our Johnny’s seed order…and now I am pulled in myriad directions. In the greenhouse, there are my babies—these, the delicate cotyledons of lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cabbage, broccoli, spinach, and onions. When the fire dies down in the sugar shack, I run down to water the seedlings, transplant the 3/4-inch blocks, and mix together more potting soil. If there’s time, I’ll visit the barnyard, too. I owe a hello to the nine newest members of the sheep flock, just old enough to nurse and nap in the straw next to their mothers.