Maple Syrup on the Way

by Tig Tillinghast

We boiled on the new “monster” arch today for the first time, and it was fantastic.

First, though, we tricked a bunch of friends that it would be fun to “take a walk” in the woods. We have very gullible friends, and they found themselves looking for and fixing vacuum leaks. Here is one hapless victim using channel lock pliers to tighten a saddle. Saddles are the plastic pieces that pierce into the mainline and allow the smaller, lateral lines to feed in. They are weak points in the vacuum system.

[Friend “taking walk”]

Meanwhile, in the sugar shack, we conducted the annual “changing of the membrane ceremony,” which involves taking the reverse osmosis membrane out of storage and inserting it into the machine. Since our machine was built before I was born and designed by crazy Quebecois people, we have to lift up the 600 pounds of steel and insert the four-foot-long membrane up the bottom. Here’s a picture of me apparently beating my head against it, which it turns out is easier then lifting it, and a little less painful.

[Head banging on reverse osmosis machine]

Reverse osmosis machines help you concentrate sap before you boil it, saving vast amounts of energy. It works essentially by forcing the sap through a big sock that has very consistently small holes it it. The holes are big enough for water molecules to pass through, but not big enough for sugar molecules to pass. Thus, it forces out a good deal of pure water before you even put it into the evaporator. It’s testy, though; cannot freeze, lest it break; and seems to operate very differently from year to year, as though the mice have gotten inside and change the wiring around just for kicks.

Last year, we got it working, but we found that the directions we got from the previous owner were complete hogwash. The pressure settings they suggested weren’t physically possible. This year, we set it up, and we can’t repeat last year’s settings, but we can come close to what the previous owner suggested. In the next few days, we’ll come up with a few dozen theories on that, but I’m skeptical we’ll ever know why.

I had one of my clever ideas over the summer and installed some large tanks for permeate water (the stuff forced out of the sap) outside the sugar shack to save some room for additional concentrate (the concentrated sap). But we found tonight that the feed pump cannot retrieve that permeate water – something we need for cleaning the RO at the end of the night – because the pump won’t bring up water from a level lower than the pump. This is bad. Tomorrow morning, I’ll be out there replumbing things in an even more complex manner to see if I can use some of our overhead storage for permeate.

The big event of the evening was the christening of the big maple syrup arch with its first flame. It is a beautiful thing. For all the complexity of a big arch and set of pans, everything went perfectly. It boiled smoothly, quickly, evenly. We sat around in wonderment that we hadn’t screwed up a single thing. And, boy, did it boil.

[This isn’t boiling; this is BOILING]

The one element of concern with the arch is that we went through quite a bit of wood with this first boil. We will figure out how to fire it more efficiently as we go along, but it’ll be interesting to see if we wind up scrounging for additional fuel before the end of the season. Here is a picture of the firebox opened for a firing on the left-hand side. That opening is about 30 inches wide.

[The gaping maw of “the maple syrup monster”]