We ended maple sugaring season with a Spring road trip. It was only a day trip but it felt good to open the windows and feel the wind on the face. After a couple of too short weekends spent tapping, boiling, bottling, and tasting the syrup my daughters and Grandpa had created, it was time for a break. So we piled into the truck, map in hand, and headed down the dirt roads surrounding our farm. The map contained the directions to participating sugar houses throughout the countryside and the truck contained my family and a tank of gas. I thought meeting farmers and other folks that shared our hobby, some on a much larger scale, would be an educational and enjoyable trip, and the scenery would be a bonus.
Our trip was met with foggy skies that covered the farms and drifted through the trees. As we neared our first stop the sun was just burning off the last of the hovering cloud. The farm was small and the sugar house was right along the road. The old farmer's wife met us in the mud of the driveway and accompanied our group inside. We were greeted by the smell of wood burning away the damp of the old barn and the old implements of sugaring past. The rooms that followed were filled with evaporators and holding tanks and more modern machinery to help quicken the process. The woman was more than happy to share secrets and methods. We took pictures of everything, comparing our basic set-up to their large scale operation. Her family had been making maple syrup for years but she was still grounded in the old ways. Her kindness extended past explaining their work to sharing their products with our children. The kids left with pockets full of maple candy, hands full of manuals covering every aspect of sugaring, and mouths full of maple cotton candy. Neighborly would be an understatement.
The next two stops, though scenic and inviting, were more concerned with selling goods and attracting touristy, out-of-town types than talking trade secrets with local hobbyists. The sugar shacks were worthy of a few snapshots and their methodologies were definitely much larger scale than buckets on trees. There were blue vacuum tubes running for acres, criss-crossing through the woods for what seemed like miles. There were machines for every step of the process, expense was nothing, traditions gone. The whole goal was to make as many gallons and dollars as possible. They were businesses, but lacked personality. We learned some useful techniques and found a few new tools to perfect our product, but were turned off by the coldness of it all.
By now lunch was on everyone's mind and the local fire department was having a pancake and maple syrup brunch to accompany the sugar shack tour. The syrup was donated by a local producer and all the food was scratch made in the fire hall kitchen. The sausage hinted at venison origins and the eggs were fresh. The milk was local and the coffee hot. The firemen and friends flung flapjacks as fast as the small crowd could pile them on their plates. This was one of the highlights of the trip, as down home as it gets. Folding tables filled with overalls and talk of hay to come and winter that didn't. The food was like eating at home and all the faces were friendly. With our bellies full, we headed across the county to find an operation very similar to ours.
Our last stop brought us to a young farm, with a young family, trying their hand at maple syrup for the first time. Their operation was nearly identical to ours. We may have even had a little more knowledge than these beginning folks. In the procurement of facts, this stop was a bit of a bust, but in the gaining of confidence, it helped tremendously. In fact, the entire road trip was a huge success. We found we were making high quality syrup while still following the old traditional methods, a source of pride if not ease. We saw that our time was not wasted and that the kids and Grandpa were on their way to being true craftsmen. We learned that next year, our farm may be a stop on the sugar shack tour. And we greeted Spring with an open sunroof, smiling into the warm sun. The warm breeze blew the dismal gray of winter out the truck's windows and brought the blossoming promise of a growing season in bloom.
As we returned home that same sun shone through an open window to highlight the amber bottle resting on the kitchen counter. The bottle of homemade syrup was like a trophy showcased there. The season of running sap was over but the goodness garnered from that season will keep us through the year to come, as will the pride of craftsmanship each time that bottle is lifted to taste its contents.