A small, gray smoke cloud pours from the chimney, ascending toward the clear April sky. Overhead, two geese soar. I recognize the mated pair as they land in the nearby swamp. A sweet smell fills the air: a smell of wood and maple and earth. Walking toward the rusty boiling stove is a messy, muddy stroll on a warm day with intense spring sun. An aroma of dirt lingers in my nose as the world around me thaws.
Spring is here on the Richardson farm, and so is Sugar Bush Season.
We head over to our neighbor’s, the McKays, and drill taps into their senile maple trees, trees that avoided the Great Fires of 1918. Dad knows just where to put the taps so as not to injure the reliable trees. We kids carry hollow milk jugs and stick them on the metal taps — but only after we drink the first drops of sap that spill out when Dad is not looking! Next, we plunge large five-gallon buckets into the dirty snowbank, giving a gentle nudge to the onlooking maples, telling them, “Do your job, old trees; we have many buckets to fill.”
Dad goes over to the McKays and checks the taps every couple of days, and more often during good years. He usually takes one of us kids to help haul and empty the sap-filled jugs into faded orange buckets. I think Dad ought to know by now to avoid taking two of us kids along; we just end up drinking the sweet sap straight out of the jug and playing on Irene’s swing set, shrugging when Dad asks about the empty milk jugs.
Sometimes, if spring melts enough snow, we boil in the backyard. Otherwise, we usually set up Sugar Bush Camp in the plowed gravel lane. The weather is sometimes warm enough to pitch a tent and camp out in the yard near the stove. I am always surprised I stay dormant in my sleeping bag when Dad gets up to feed the fire. An overnight boil he calls it. When Dad pours the clear, water-like sap into the evaporator pan, we know we have a lot of “taste it and see if it’s ready” upon us. Dad turns on his rundown, blue transistor radio and listens to March Madness or Kenny Rogers or UMD hockey. We anxiously wait for the clear sap to turn into a thick, amber-colored substance. As I wait, I stare out over the field and admire the temporary spring ponds, wishing they would make their stay permanent. I enjoy sitting by the stove, reading and observing and thinking. The heat radiates from the ancient beast, contrasting with the cool spring air.
I can hear when the syrup nears completion. The bubbles get bigger as the sap screams from the extreme heat of the stoked fire. I wait for what seems like forever. The smell of syrup mocks me as it lets out its final breath. When the syrup is finally done, Dad lets it cool. What started as a full bucket of clear sap is now only a few eight-ounce bottles of syrup, boiled down to perfection under the starry April sky.
The next step is messy and something in which I rarely take part. Dad pours the fresh syrup from the pan into multiple Mason jars. The color of syrup differs depending on the batch. He then sticks the jars in the fridge, letting the sediment settle to the bottom, leaving only the good syrup to bottle and enjoy.
The fridge fills quickly. We typically avoid buying lots of groceries during Sugar Bush Season. Once the syrup in the jars has settled, bottling time arrives. The small curvy bottles with labels reading “R.S.W. Sugar Bush” get brought out of the closet, sleepy from their yearly slumber. Dad then pours the thick, brown syrup into each bottle, careful not to spill. He caps the bottles and puts them in ice water, the final step of cooling. As we wait, Dad boils the metal taps on the stove to prepare them for next year’s season. Every year I hear the same joke: “We are having tap soup for dinner!” The syrup is now done, ready to pour on pancakes, wild rice, oatmeal, grits, or whatever else we may desire.
All the work to make a single batch of syrup is kind of crazy when I think about it, but it’s worth every second. Sugar Bush Season is a tradition I look forward to each year, something that brings my family and me together. I will always view the process as special. Watching Dad drill taps into a tree, harvest sweet sap, and boil it down to make homemade syrup is a true art I have always admired. I hope to one day teach my children the art of Sugar Bush, as my dad has taught me.
Not much has changed since I was a young child, drinking sap directly from the aged maples, grinning ear to ear. My eyes still stare in amazement at the ancient grove of maples with dusty plastic milk jugs hanging from their trunks. I still eagerly await the rust-covered stove being dragged out of the machine shed and the static sound of old country songs on Dad’s transistor radio.
Now, still in the dead of winter, I look forward to springtime and the atmosphere that comes with it. I look forward to Sugar Bush: relaxing in cool, metal lawn chairs by the warm boiling stove, reading a book, smelling sweet maple, and watching the two mating geese overhead. I always know where they are going to land.
Sophie Richardson of Mahtowa is a senior at Cloquet High School. She wrote this originally for a University of Minnesota Duluth composition writing class.