WEATHER: April in February, now February in April. Low last night 18, snowing hard this afternoon.
HOW’S IT RUNNING? The second intermission began yesterday. Of note earlier in the week was how strong the bucket taps (all five) were running; they outperformed the tubing taps. Usually by late in the season the bucket taps have dried up.
FRESH EYES DEPT. An exploration geologist interns with Nebraska Knoll.
From a family visit nearly 60 years ago, to a sugaring operation in Cambridge, I vaguely knew how sap went from tree to cans on a store shelf, but until now had little appreciation for the herculean effort required to produce the syrup I can’t live without. To an 8-year-old, maple sugaring was drinking cold sap out of a bucket hung on a tap, being overwhelmed by steam in the sugarhouse and rolling up sugar on snow. It was all wonderful. After several days assisting at Nebraska Knoll all of that still holds, but I now know the true effort and team work required to make this classic Vermont product. I will never again complain about the price of maple syrup. It’s a massive bargain.
In February, with a warm front bearing down on Vermont, it was near panic time for sugaring operations across the state. Nebraska Knoll needed immediate assistance in getting 9800 taps put in before the sap began to flow. Recently retired and wintering in Stowe, my wife Lori and I had time and met the minimum requirement for a sugaring intern. We were ambulatory. Getting a day in the sugarbush wandering through the quiet of a snow-covered forest tapping into sugar maples sounded romantic. Plus, it would only be a day.
Audrey gave us a tutorial on tapping a maple tree showing us how to make sure a tree was alive, how to avoid putting in a tap too close to a previously drilled hole, to drill to an exact depth, to hammer the plastic tap into the hole with exact pressure and the same with the tap line connection [stubby] to the tap. So many opportunities to screw up. With this 15-minute anxiety inducing instructional over, Lori got the benefit of tapping trees near the sugarhouse with Audrey. I was sent off to join Cy up on the Herbie lines.
In the Nebraska Knoll sugarbush 3 kilometers of large black plastic main lines extend up the valley behind the sugarhouse and form the “backbone” of the piping network collecting sap from the sugarbush. Off these main lines there are over 10 kilometers of 1-inch black plastic tubing in the 40 secondary main lines branching out into the forest. Each of these are fed by 10 to 50, 5/16-inch, clear blue tubing tap lines each connected to 5-15 trees. This adds another 100 kilometers plus of tubing. It took years of work to install this tubing network all wired to trees to hang off the ground. Navigating through the sugarbush over and under these lines requires great agility and flexibility. Unfortunately, I haven’t brought any of that to the table for 30 years. The lines have been diabolically hung at levels too low to easily go under and too high to easily step over. Add snow shoes to the mix and there’s potential for an endless stream of “Old Dude vs. the Sugarbush” YouTube videos.
There’s scarcely a flat spot anywhere in the Nebraska Knoll Sugarbush and it’s all up hill from the sugarhouse with over 800 feet of relief. There’s still deep snow and I have no experience on snow shoes. When I left the main trail to start tapping it was like tossing someone who can’t swim into the deep end of a pool. I’d catch the toe of a snow shoe and fall face first, I’d tumble over on my side every time I had to step over or crawl under a tap line, I’d roll over backwards on steep inclines, I’d drop tools, forget tools, get lost (how can you get lost following a single blue tap line?). I cursed in English, I cursed in Spanish, I cursed in German and I don’t speak German.
I’d frequently have to go off in search of an ever-patient Cy to get help with the simplest problems. On my 10th tree the bit in my drill stops cutting no matter how hard I push. How could that be, it should last all day! Off I thrash in search of Cy. With a bemused look he flicks the switch on my drill from “reverse” to “forward”. Problem solved. How did I get a Ph.D., how did a I graduate high school!
I’d study each tree looking for the perfect spot to drill. With every tree I was a deer in the head lights considering all the ways I could screw up. I’d been given 300 taps to use and I’m not making much of a dent in the first bag of 100. I’d finish a tree and think, “Ross and Cy probably just put in 6 taps each!” By the end of the day trudging down the mountain wet, frozen and exhausted in a steady snowfall I carry with me an embarrassing 183 unused taps, one broken snowshoe and no hammer. My tapping career should clearly be over. However, the warm front approaches. “Can you be back tomorrow at 9?”
I’m back for the next 3 days with my production ramping up from “are you kidding me?” bad, to a notch above “pathetic”, to the equivalent of “half of a Ross”. I stop falling, I stop getting lost (well just once), I stop agonizing over the location of every drill hole, and I start appreciating the quiet and beauty of the sugarbush. I keep losing hammers. I am told they will be found although maybe not until 2023.
The dreaded February heat wave comes in as the last tap lines are connected and the sap starts to flow. Lori and I are given the opportunity to go from tapping to assisting in the sugarhouse. We show up the first morning expecting to see steam billowing from the building, but all is quiet. There inside we find Lew and Audrey staring at a cold evaporator with sap pouring out from beneath the firebox. There’s a leak that cannot be found without a complete tear down! Panic and defeat in the eyes of all but Lew. “Just start the fire and maybe it seals itself”. The old “wing and a prayer” approach. It works. Saved by the coefficient of expansion or something good coming from niter deposition. Who knows.
Lori and I are assigned tasks for which we are qualified. I get to stack wood and feed the voracious appetite of the fire and Lori gets to clean anything and everything. We’re happy. Mainly we get a much better understanding of the making of maple syrup. We learn to use the hydrometer to measure sugar content in the sap (1.8% on day one) and in the final product. We don’t get to learn the details of the high tech reverse osmosis machine – the most important piece of equipment in the sugarhouse other than Lew.
It takes 30 to 50 gallons (200 liters) of sap to make a gallon of syrup depending on sugar content of the sap. The sugarhouse will produce 200 gallons of syrup on this day which absent the RO machine means heating sap to boiling and vaporizing 40,000 liters of water. Basically, that’s vaporizing your swimming pool. It would take 25 billion calories of heat transfer. However, thanks to the RO, the sap going into the evaporator on this day has
been upgraded to 15% sugar. Now to make that 200 gallons of syrup “only” 3600 liters of water have to be vaporized. It reduces stoking by 80-90% of what it would be without the RO. My back is grateful. How important is the RO? No one with even the remotest potential to touch something that shouldn’t be touched in that RO room is allowed in. My picture should be on the door with an “X” through it.
To increase efficiency, the concentrated sap runs through a pre-heater which while heating the sap produces a thin stream of hot distilled water which is stored in large white buckets. A sugarhouse generates a steady stream of items desperately in need of cleaning: pails, barrels, jugs, bottles, filters, hoses, floors, hands, gauges, … Lori sees this as heaven.
The sap works its way through the troughs of the evaporator getting denser and darker with bigger and bigger bubbles. At the draw point either Audrey or Ana is in constant motion trying to produce a “draw” that is slightly above the minimum sugar requirement required by Vermont law. It’s part science but mostly “feel” and art. Audrey is methodical watching everything and everyone with the combination of confidence and fear (so much can go wrong!) of someone who has been doing this for a lifetime. Young Ana, outwardly anyways, is completely calm, all smiles and equally efficient. Meanwhile, I stack wood and stoke the fire with no worries other than responding to Ana’s or Audrey’s cries of “stoke!”, not setting fire to the sugarhouse or dying under a wood avalanche.
It becomes clear after a few hours that I’ve mastered stacking wood and stoking and can do more. I get to respond to calls of “pail!”. The syrup coming off a draw is boiling hot and cloudy with impurities and is transferred in a pail to pass through a pressure filter. A bit of a stumble bum, as I carry each pail to the filter station all I think is “please don’t drop it, please don’t drop it”! It’s a miracle I never trip and send $300 worth of syrup across the sugarhouse floor. There’s not enough distilled water in Stowe to clean that up.
I will eventually get to the point, but I must digress here and go over the importance of diatoms. Diatoms are micro-organisms in the ocean and some fresh water lakes and are responsible for 20% of carbon fixation out of the atmosphere and 20% of oxygen generation into the atmosphere. Basically, we die without them. Most salt water biota if they
have any shell or skeleton have ones made of calcium carbonate. Diatoms are different, their exoskeletons are siliceous, rain down in the trillions on the seafloor or lake beds. In the latter case, if conditions are right the skeletons form deposits of diatomaceous earth. Each of those micron sized shells has the capability to trap impurities with which it comes into contact. A cup of white diatomaceous earth powder is added to a pail of crude syrup where the particles glom onto impurities in the syrup. The mixture is run through the filter press where fine white paper membranes stop the now impurity loaded diatomaceous earth. Not bad, alive they give us oxygen and fight global warming, and dead they give us clear maple syrup.
The flow from the filter press is the final product which gets tested one last time to ensure it exceeds the minimum legal sugar content. There is much discussion among the crew on the grading and then it’s what Lew says it is. There’s a place for democracy but not so much in a sugarhouse.
We are back in Stowe in mid-March and are happy being invited to help out on a couple of occasions. The harried feel of the first day of boiling in February is gone and the team works smoothly as one would expect from a small and well-trained crew. Ross and Cy remain the tireless guardians of the tubing in the sugarbush. Audrey and Ana with their separate styles manage syrup production and deal with a constant stream of minor issues in the sugarhouse. Lew takes care of the vacuum pump and the critical RO and addresses any issue not resolvable by the rest of the team. There is a bond and easy banter between everyone in the crew that can only come from having to jointly battle all that nature and mechanical malfunctions can do to put a successful sugaring season in jeopardy. Then there is the pride and satisfaction producing fabulous syrup. Can’t live without it.
– R. PAGE