SAWYER — When the crows start to chase each other for mating season. When the squirrels start nibbling on the ends of maple tree branches. When the snow pulls away from the base of the trees thanks to more and stronger sunshine.

That’s when it’s time.

Vern Northrup lets nature tell him when it’s time to tap maple trees on his family’s 35-acre sugarbush in Carlton County.

And right now it’s prime time.

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“A few weeks ago the weather was trying to kill us,’’ Northrup said on a sunny afternoon last week. “Now it’s nearly 50 degrees. It's not supposed to happen that fast.”

Northrup, a Fond du Lac Ojibwe elder, said he was amazed at how quickly the trees warmed up after the February Arctic outbreak ended, and they were producing sap almost immediately in March. The family now has 164 trees tapped, and the sap will continue to flow as long as daytime highs remain in the upper 30s and 40s and lows drop below freezing, into the 20s or upper teens.

If spring warms too fast, and temperatures don’t drop back below freezing at night, the sap will begin to slow and stop, ending the sweetest season.

“It’s been getting earlier over time, and the season is getting shorter, thanks to climate change,’’ Northrup said. “If it stays too warm at night the trees shut down.”

Vern Northrup and invited guests watch maple sap boil in large kettles over an open fire Saturday at the Northrup family sugarbush camp on Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa tribal land near Sawyer. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
Vern Northrup and invited guests watch maple sap boil in large kettles over an open fire Saturday at the Northrup family sugarbush camp on Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa tribal land near Sawyer. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

For hundreds of years people of the Fond du Lac Band of Ojibwe have been tapping trees in this part of what is now Minnesota and the Northrup family is carrying that tradition on. The maple sap and the syrup it yields is yet another “medicine provided by the Creator,” Northrup notes. The sugarbush camp and the process of tapping the trees, collecting and concentrating the sap and making syrup or maple sugar, is not just an ancient rite — iskigamizigan — it’s the best time of year to be outdoors.

The winter’s snows are melting. Warmth and more daylight are returning to the forest. Birds and animals are returning and awakening all around.

“It’s a happy time of year for the Anishinaabe… We are happy when we are in the sugarbush. It’s just like ricing season. We are outdoors. We are together as family. We are gathering what the Creator provides for us... And after our efforts there is this great reward,” Northrup said.

Pure maple syrup.

Russ Northrup dips a ladle in boiling sap to grab a sample to taste Saturday at the Northrup family sugarbush camp on Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa tribal land near Sawyer. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
Russ Northrup dips a ladle in boiling sap to grab a sample to taste Saturday at the Northrup family sugarbush camp on Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa tribal land near Sawyer. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

An outdoor family affair

The land here is officially owned by the Fond du Lac Band of Ojibwe, acquired from Carlton County as the band works to restore tribal ownership of land within its reservation. The Northrup family gets sugarbush rights to this plot of forest.

Vern’s brother, Russ Northrup, started a sugarbush here some 20 year ago. Vern joined him a decade ago. On any given day now, and as long as the sap flows, various Northrups will be here, taking turns at collecting sap, building a fire and boiling down the sap into syrup. Camp chairs are pulled up and a tarp is stretched over the fire and fire watchers.

It’s like a big family campout with a much deeper purpose.

”My children are here. My grandchildren are here. I have great-grandchildren who come out,’’ said Russ Northrup.

“I’ll be here every day, all day that I can from now on,’’ Vern said.

Whenever 120 gallons or so of sap are collected, one branch of the family will start a “boil’’ using big copper and cast-iron kettles to simmer down the sap, concentrated into sweet maple syrup.

Vern Northrup watches maple sap boil over an open fire Saturday at the Northrup family sugarbush camp on Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa tribal land near Sawyer. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
Vern Northrup watches maple sap boil over an open fire Saturday at the Northrup family sugarbush camp on Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa tribal land near Sawyer. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Russ Northrup dipped a ladle into one of the kettles and cooled it in the snow. Tasting it, he proclaimed it time to combine three kettles to two, and later two to one, as the sap boiled down into syrup.

“I don’t use a thermometer, just tasting,’’ Russ noted.

Naomi Northrup placed green maple logs vertically around the fire under the kettles to hold the heat in place, adding an occasional chunk of dry wood to the fire at just the right time to keep the sap simmering but not boiling over. Occasionally, if the sap began to boil too hard, someone would dip a balsam branch in and the boiling would stop instantly.

“We use only maple wood for the fire because the aroma from the smoke gets into the syrup and makes it better,’’ Vern said.

Cutting dead and dying maple trees not only provides the fuel for the maple syrup fire, but it opens up areas of sunshine to the forest floor so the next generation of maple trees can grow.

Maple sap drips from a spile Saturday at the Northrup family sugarbush camp on Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa tribal land near Sawyer. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
Maple sap drips from a spile Saturday at the Northrup family sugarbush camp on Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa tribal land near Sawyer. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

It takes all 120 gallons of that sap to make about three or four gallons of syrup. At the very peak of the season, Russ said 120 gallons of sap may come in a single day. For most of the season, though, it might take two or three days to collect enough sap for a boil.

Taken on to the next level of “processing,” each gallon of syrup makes about a pound of maple sugar, which was the usual end product before refrigeration was common.

“They made it into sugar so it would last, so they could store it and carry it with them. It was the only real seasoning they had for their food for much of the time,’’ Vern Northrup said of his ancestors.

Naomi Northrup transfers maple sap into one kettle Saturday at the Northrup family sugarbush camp on Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa tribal land near Sawyer. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
Naomi Northrup transfers maple sap into one kettle Saturday at the Northrup family sugarbush camp on Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa tribal land near Sawyer. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Northrup said maple trees — Ininaatig — once saved his ancestors' lives after they ran out of food during an especially harsh winter. Just in time, before any other spring food could present itself, maples offered sap and syrup, enough calories to survive.

“That tree saved our lives. We measure our ages by how many winters we survived and that tree helped them survive winter,’’ said Northrup, who is 68 winters old.

Last week the Northrups invited some guests into the sugarbush camp to learn a little more about the family tradition and to learn a little more about Vern Northrup’s budding career as a nature photographer. Northrup explained how his photography is a connection between the Creator’s gifts of nature and the people who view the images, a chance for others to see the spirituality of nature that he has found.

“Everything you see out here is a living thing with a spirit. We (humans) are only one of the many spirits here. We need to honor all the others. We honor the trees with tobacco before we take the’’ maple sap, Vern noted. “Everything here is a medicine — muski'ki — or a food for us, and it all has a spirit.”

The St. Louis River on a foggy day.  The river, Gitchi-gami-Ziibi, played a critical role in the culture, life and survival of the people who are now Fond du Lac Ojibwe, including photographer Vern Northrup. (Vern Northrup photo)
The St. Louis River on a foggy day. The river, Gitchi-gami-Ziibi, played a critical role in the culture, life and survival of the people who are now Fond du Lac Ojibwe, including photographer Vern Northrup. (Vern Northrup photo)

Photographing the Creator’s gifts

Nortrhup’s photos of nature are of simple subjects, but he manages to capture stunning details and features most of us miss. He says he wants his photography to show the connection between Earth and spirit.

“When I come out here, I look to relax. Then I just slowly look around and see what is there.”

Northrup said as he walked over to a balsam fir tree.

He noted how, if you look close enough, the primary bud on a balsam fir branch looks like a star, or maybe a tiny human. It’s something maybe many people would miss. But not him.

Northrup retired in 2011 from a 25-year career as a wildland firefighter, a forest fire expert for the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs who battled blazes in 28 different states.

A still pond on an early autumn day. Northrup said that when he photographs water he likes to walk up to the edge but then step back a couple feet "to let nature frame the photo." (Vern Northrup photo)
A still pond on an early autumn day. Northrup said that when he photographs water he likes to walk up to the edge but then step back a couple feet "to let nature frame the photo." (Vern Northrup photo)

Shortly after retirement, Northrup became ill with Lyme disease. As part of his effort to get well, he began riding a bike. And it was while riding, moving slower than in a motor vehicle, Northrup says he began to notice nature more closely, more clearly, especially the patterns in nature. He’d stop to snap a photo with his camera phone (an old iPhone then) and move on, not realizing that what he had was special. But when he showed people the images, many were taken aback by their beauty and what they revealed.

Professional photographers would call it composition. Northrup says it just happens. "I just learned what composition was a few months ago,’’ he said.

He now takes all of his photos with a smartphone camera — now it’s a Galaxy S9+ — leaving his larger digital cameras at home.

“I carried a heavy pack for all those years fighting fires. I really don’t feel like carrying all that photo gear now.”

But the limitations of a phone camera — generally that you need to be close to the subject matter — don’t seem to hold him back.

“I can’t remember what my first phone photo was that I showed people. Probably a sunset. I took a lot of sunset photos,’’ Northrup said with a laugh.

Droplets of fog and drizzle bead up on the needles of a tamarack tree. (Vern Northrup photo)
Droplets of fog and drizzle bead up on the needles of a tamarack tree. (Vern Northrup photo)

Eventually his repertoire grew and people kept telling him he needed to show his work in public — not just for the stunning images but also for the stories they helped him tell of the Anishinaabe connection to nature.

“The natural world reveals things to Vern, through his camera, that it doesn’t reveal to other people,’’ said Christina Woods, executive director of the Duluth Art Institute and a Bois Forte Ojibwe. “Once he took me on a snowshoe hike and we were both taking photos. We were taking photos of the exact same things, but his photos always had more in them... The spirit of the tree we were photographing shows through in Vern’s photos, but not mine.”

Woods said that’s when she knew Northrup’s photographs were special and needed to be seen by more people.

For his part Northrup isn’t sure how or when his talent arrived, but he credits it not to any study or knowledge of photography but to the Creator guiding his lens and filling it with life.

A small tree dressed in fresh snow in Jay Cooke State Park. Northrup said Ojibwe people have always measured their age by how many winters they have survived, because winter was the hardest part of life. (Vern Northrup photo)
A small tree dressed in fresh snow in Jay Cooke State Park. Northrup said Ojibwe people have always measured their age by how many winters they have survived, because winter was the hardest part of life. (Vern Northrup photo)

Northrup’s first public exhibition was through Duluth’s American Indian Community Housing Organization. In 2019 Northrup compiled a book of his nature photographs that were published by the Duluth Art Institute thanks to a $10,000 grant from the Duluth Community Foundation. “Akinomaage: Teaching from the Earth,” is the first book the institute has published. The institute also held an exhibition of Northrup’s photos that eventually moved to the state Capitol in St. Paul.

A second book focusing on trees is in the works.

“It’s really not anything I do’’ that makes the photographs special, Vern said. “It’s really a gift from the Creator.”

Editor's note: Northrup’s collection of photographs of the natural world, called “Akinomaage: Teaching from the Earth,” is available for $21.68 through the Duluth Art Institute. Go to duluthartinistitute.org and click on store.

About maple syrup

  • Pure maple syrup is made in only 19 mostly northeastern states in the U.S. and 3 provinces in Canada. Minnesota is the most northerly and westerly region that produces maple syrup.
  • Maple syrup is made in the spring, when temperatures go below freezing at night and above freezing during the day, causing sap to flow through the tree.

  • In Northeastern Minnesota the traditional season fell between mid-March and late April. But that’s moving earlier as spring temperatures rise sooner, with sap sometimes flowing now in early March and nights often too warm for sap to flow by late April.

  • It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup. Each tree can yield 10-12 gallons of sap during a season, which boils down to about one quart of finished syrup.

  • Nothing is added to the sap, only the water is evaporated to make syrup.

  • Sugar maple trees are usually tapped beginning at 30 to 50 years of age. Each tree can support between one and three taps, depending on its trunk diameter.

Source: Minnesota Maple Syrup Producers Association

The Ojibwe legend of maple syrup

Vern Northrup says that, according to Ojibwe tradition, maple trees once produced 100% pure maple syrup, the thick, sweet sticky stuff we put on pancakes that didn’t need to be boiled down.

But the easy nature of simply tapping trees to get the already finished product “made our people lazy,’’ Northrup said. “So the Creator made it thinner, into sap, and now we have to work for our syrup.”