Voice from Past as the Maple Syrup Season Slows

by Tig Tillinghast

In maple sugaring, the equipment that claims the cruelest name is the “extractor,” a device that sounds like it preys on maple trees. What it really does is separate out the sap flowing down toward a vacuum system and puts it into a storage tank without interrupting the flow of vacuum to the tree.

[The Not-Very-Quaint Extractor]

Buckets and horses it ain’t. It’s a clever device, and useful in that you can calculate your sap flow by timing how frequently it extracts with its electric pump.

Tonight, visiting our rented sugar bush to see if I needed to turn off the vacuum system due to rapidly freezing conditions, I set down to first calculate the extracting times with a stopwatch.

I didn’t set this bush up. A man named Chaz did, and I came along to rent it from his family after he passed away a few years ago.

[The Sugarhouse at Chaz’s Bush]

Our extractor throws about four gallons of sap at a time, so when we see it working every three minutes, we know that we’re running about 80 gallons per hour out of the forest, or about enough to make two gallons of maple syrup. The pump clicks on after 2 minutes, 56 seconds.

Just one test is often misleading, so I reset the watch to restart. Killing time, I start going through the trove of Chaz’s notes from years past. Manuals, sugar line layouts, some day-to-day notes. The notes are precious. They show how this bush’s trees interact with weather and temperature, seasons and how Chaz’s equipment – much of which I use – interacts with the sap to create light and dark maple syrup. He’s written down settings, mistakes, clever work-arounds and even occasionally how he felt.

3 minutes, 9 seconds later, I hear the extractor click the pump on. I could use another data point.

My sugaring buddy and I have been arguing back and forth about whether the season is over, or if we’re just in a dry patch for sap. I start rifling through Chaz’s notes to see when he stopped. He ended his seasons on April 14, 2, 21 and once on March 23, although the notes then indicate “burned the finish pan,” so I won’t count that one.

I hear the extractor pump turn on, so I push the lap button on the stopwatch. 3 minutes, 37 seconds that time, slowing a little.

Some of his notes are prosaic things only another maple syrup maker would find interesting, like the sugar content of his sap (high then as it is now, at about 2.5 percent), and others barely describe the drama I’m sure was involved (“March 20: Leak in flue pan”) which was probably very much like the day, almost exactly a year later, “9.5 inches of sap. Burned front pan.”

The extractor clicks on, and I push the lap button on the stopwatch. 4 minutes, 1 second this time.

In 2003, when Chaz was sick, there are blank spaces. You can see him backfilling dates with temperatures, and once writing on March 24 “Was in hospital since the 21rst.”

I didn’t see a lot of syrup quantity recorded day-to-day in that calendar. He’d put out a gallon of maple syrup one day, a few days later three gallons of maple syrup. The inconsistent boiling took a toll on the grade, with the maple syrup descending to Grade C on March 25. Chaz did a “push” the next day, putting plain water through the back of the pan to push through the remaining maple syrup before he would dump the pans, clean them and start over.

I notice the extractor has been going for a few seconds, so I reset the stopwatch. It was 4 minutes, 30 seconds. A whole lot slower now.

It took three days of boiling after that to get the sugar content back up in the pans, and the first batch of maple syrup must have been frustrating because it was Grade C again. It would have come back up after that, but the weather let Chaz down, turning cold enough to deny him sap for nine straight days, and allowing the sap he did have in his pans to sour. He cleaned again the day before the big runs on April 10 and 11, making a range of Dark Amber, B and then C again.

Those days and the three next brought Chaz 36 gallons of maple syrup, by far the most he’d ever made in such a period. The next day: “Very warm. I quit.” It was 76 degrees outside, a clear day and a night of a full moon.

5 minutes and 20 seconds had gone by. The extractor clicked on. I pocketed the timer and grabbed Chaz’s notes. There was truly a trove of useful information (that, for instance, the automatic draw off device I was contemplating using actually doesn’t work).

[Before Chaz, the Old Sugarhouse Up Atop the Hill]

I peer into the extractor’s input pane and can see that the sap lines must be freezing up. There’s little sap coming in, and the pressure gauge is steadily climbing as ice blocks major parts of the lines. I throw the switch on the wall with a satisfying “clunk,” turning off the vacuum. With some cold this evening, we’ll get some more flow tomorrow, and maybe extend our season one or two more days. It’s April 8, a full moon lights the outside; a fair time to think about stopping for those who would, but I going to decline. I still hold out hope for a last charge of sap in the face of the oncoming spring. We still have much to make up.