by Alan Linton
This is my second day of boiling down sap for syrup. By itself it keeps me busy for eight weeks of the Maine winter.
It also happens to be when Little League hockey playoffs are held on Sand Point, right out front of the homes on Scott Road in South Monmouth. I own some extra space between me and the iced-over pond, so my front yard serves as a parking lot. I don’t mind as long as they clean up after themselves.
This year I’ve been volunteered by my brother and sister to serve hot chocolate to their children’s teams and babysit while Ken and Libby go shopping. They must have forgotten I have Grandfather’s Secret Recipe.
It’s a good thing Dad made a Shaker’s table for special occasions. I’m uncle to eleven nieces and nephews, six kids from Ken’s family, five from Libby’s. My house is built into an embankment. Easy to maintain. I have a barn where I work most of my jobs. That’s where I’ve set up the table where eleven kids sit at benches eating waffles and talking hockey. It’s warm with the wood stove going.
“Your uncle made that maple syrup,” I tell them.
They look up with surprised eyes and consider my statement before replying with skeptical, “Nuh-uh” ’s.
“If you don’t believe it, I’ll just have to take all of you with me. You can help collect and cook the sap.” Relatives make great slave labor.
“How long will it take?” asks seven-year-old Mike.
“With a dozen well-behaved kids, ALL DAY.”
Moans and groans.
“But we have a game today and practice the rest of February vacation!” complains Tanya, my sister’s oldest.
“I’ll compromise. We’ll take a quick trip into the woods to pick up the sap. That’ll show you how things are set up. Everyone works together you’ll be on the ice in an hour.”
“But Uncle!” Jonathan, Ken’s second, protests.
“The game doesn’t start for three hours.”
“How would you know,” Blaine, the smart-mouthed nine-year-old, wonders. “I’m making the hot chocolate, remember?”
While they consider I clear the table. “Say,” I ask as I do, looking around, “where’s that Canadian exchange student I met last month? Wasn’t she supposed to come?”
“There’s no arguing with Uncle,” Mike concludes, putting on his winter garb.
The others grumble and get dressed.
We gather thirteen pairs of snowshoes and twelve sleds. “Wait a minute! That ain’t right! Who’s playing tricks on Uncle, wearing two pairs of snowshoes?”
I tell eight-year-old twins Catherine and Cassandra they can pull one sled.
“But we each want one!” Catherine protests. “We’re almost as old as Blaine and just as strong and he’s got his own!”
It takes a few minutes to load up the sleds. On the twins’ I put ten empty buckets. The rest get twelve each. “Does everyone remember how to use snowshoes?” I ask.
“Yes, Uncle,” comes the answer with more attitude than usual.
I load my own sled down with twelve ten-gallon buckets, filled and sealed.
“Why are your buckets covered up?” Tessie, the youngest, wants to know.
“It’s a surprise,” I say, smiling.
Within a dozen steps hockey is forgotten. The powdery snow puffs up through the webbing of snowshoes. The harder they stomp the higher the snow puffs. I give them five minutes to goof around, enjoying their smiles and giggles.
“Everybody ready?” I ask.
No use telling them they will remember this trip for years to come.
A snowmobile trail runs out behind the barn. This makes for level going the first bit of the trip.
“How are we going to get syrup in the woods?” Tessie asks.
“See those trees up ahead with the silver pails on them?” It’s a good thing I’m looking at her, since all I get for a response is a nod.
“How come this one doesn’t have a bucket on it?” She points to a nearby tree.
“That’s a birch tree. Not the right kind.”
“Uncle, those are fox tracks over there.” Mike points to his left. “Looks like he was chasing a snowshoe rabbit.”
“Been looking at Uncle’s books again, huh?”
“There’s animals in the woods?” asks ten year-old Shannon, nervously.
“Yes, but if you pay attention to what your dad and I tell you you’ll be fine.”
“What kind of trees are good for sap?” Catherine asks.
“Sugar Maple. Like the ones in front of us.”
We arrive at the first trees, festooned with two-and-a-half gallon stainless steel pails, like strange metal verdure. The first pail is filled almost to brimming, with a steady stream still coming from the pewter pipe. I unhook it, hang an empty one in its place, and strain the sap into a bucket on Tessie’s sled. The four pails on this tree alone will all but top off her buckets. This is going to be a productive day.
“It looks like water,” says Cassandra.
“That’s how syrup begins.”
“No way!” Blaine challenges.
“Who put the faucet in the tree?” Jonathan asks.
“That’s a spile. It goes into the tree’s veins and draws the sap.”
“Doesn’t that hurt the tree?” asks Tessie.
“It’s like when Mommy cuts your hair. That doesn’t hurt, does it?”
Tessie gives it some thought and shakes her head.
“Each tree has more than one vein. Not blood veins, like people. Tree veins for water and food that turns into sap or pitch.”
We go on collecting sap while I answer questions. The sap has been flowing generously. We won’t get it all. I’ll have to get the rest while they play their hockey game. When their buckets are filled Catherine’s and Cassandra’s sleds are left behind. The others complain until I tell them theirs will soon be left behind, too.
I turn to where Mike is pointing. A chipmunk sits on a branch, chattering like a sewing machine, pushing snow from thimbles doweled to a limb.
“What’s he doing?” asks Catherine.
“He’s thirsty for something sweet. Come help me, Cathy.”
Hauling Tanya’s sled Cathy follows me. I hand her a small ladle and point to a pail of sap. “Dip that in here, then dump it into the empty thimble. Do the same for the other two thimbles,” I say.
She asks why the pails are covered.
“If they weren’t the squirrels and chipmunks would drink all the sap from them.”
I hear a whoosh behind me. The others run toward me screaming, snowshoes wobbling. A doe shoulders through the pine grove, the branches still heavy with snow. The doe pushes the branches aside and moves on, causing them to snap back, knocking the snow loose with a waterfall-like whoosh.
“Who wants to help me feed Bambi?”
A little skittish, Cassandra steps forward.
“Pick up one of Uncle’s buckets from his sled.”
She complies, surprised at its weight, but determined. Halfway to the deer the bucket slides from her hands. She drags it the rest of the way by its handle through the snow. While she does that I pick a bucket of sap from Tanya’s sled. Knowing it’s for her the deer scurries toward me. Not two hot seconds after she starts drinking a buck tramps out of the trees. With Sandy still beside me I take the top off her bucket and dump the seeds and grain next to the sap. That should satisfy them for while.
“Why did you do that?” Tanya asks.
“If I hadn’t the deer would turn over the buckets we’ve collected so far. We’ll make it up on our way out of the woods.”
“Now that they know we have food they’ll follow us!” Tanya warns. (She can be a little snotty at times, but she’s a good girl.)
“They’ll follow us right to the brook where they’ll stop for water,” I say.
“The brook’s frozen over. Who’ll cut a hole in the ice?” asks Jennifer.
“We’ll decide that when we get there.”
On the way to the brook I dole out sap to half the forest. Foxes, raccoons, and deer, all drinking like dipsos at an open bar.
“How much syrup could be made with all that sap you’re wasting?” Tanya asks.
“About two gallons.”
“Grampy sells his syrup for fifty bucks a gallon!”
The other kids answer Tanya by sticking out their tongues.
To make a hole in the ice I need my manual auger. I get it from my sled. Halfway through my drilling, one of the girls screeches like a scared owl. I turn to see Tanya sitting in the snow, rubbing her right chin, sobbing. Next to her an angry beaver slaps the snow with his tail. I walk over, pick her up, and set her on a sled.
“Was he slapping his tail before he whacked you?”
“Yes,” she says, sobbing.
“That was his warning. You ignored it.”
“You’ll have a limp for a while. You’ll remember this trip more than anyone. I don’t want any phone calls later because you didn’t tell the whole story.”
We dump the rest of the fodder on the ice, then I finish drilling and put my auger back on my sled. On the way back to the barn we empty the sap pails again. An empty minibus greets us at the front of the barn when we get there. Eleven of my “syrup slaves” join their teammates on Sand Pond. Wounded Tanya stays behind to help me carry sap into the barn where it goes into the steamer to boil.
“How much did we get?” she says, looking over the buckets.
“About fifteen hundred gallons.”
“How much syrup will that make?”
“About seventy five gallons.”
“You mean it takes twenty gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup?”
“Yep,” Tanya always was good at math.
With her injured leg she doesn’t feel like going to the pond. I let her stay and help me put up the equipment. We fire up the steamer.
“Don’t you have more sap to collect, Uncle?”
“I’ll get it when your father comes back.”
“Why did you put that full bucket by the stove?”
“That’s for a surprise later,” I answer. “Soon as I get a fire going in that old stove I’ll start that hot chocolate I promised.”
Leaving Tayna to stir the sap, I go out back for firewood. There was none split. By the time I split enough for the stove and go back in the games are over. I’m faced with a crowd of hyper kids, twenty-eight kids and four adults, plus my twelve (and I still don’t know who number 12 is): forty-five total. Only mine will be made with milk. The rest get the “Wired Special.” Main ingredient: Hershey’s in aluminum cans, unsweetened. The sap will make up for that.
“Jennifer, would you get the marshmallows from the house, please?”
I stoke the stove and put the sap on to boil. It looks like a pot of water. With it boiling the kids line up with their big gulp tumblers. I hold the Hershey’s can in one hand and an unmarked jar of dark brown powder in the other.
“Take a spoonful from each container,” I instruct them. “Then dip that ladle into the pot on the stove and fill your cups.”
I twist the lid off the unmarked jar. The aroma of Folger’s fills the room. None of these kids will sleep tonight. Only adults are allowed seconds.
At 3:30 the minibus pulls out. The remaining adults each fill a thermos with “Wired.” A handful of last year’s Rock Hard Maple Candy goes into their pockets.
My siblings and in-laws drive in around four. By then the steamer Tanya and I filled is almost done. At five Mom and Dad join the party. I go out to collect the rest of the sap. When I return Dad tells me the adults have helped themselves to another round.
“When did you learn to make such great coffee?” my sister asks.
“Our grandfather taught me.”
“We won’t sleep all night!”
“The kids had a great time today collecting sap.”
To this my brother laughs.
“Call them over and find out for yourself!” I insist.
Ken gathers his brood.
“Did you know animals like to drink sap?” says Shannon enthusiastically.
“I gave a fox some sap,” answers his son Jonathan. “He had blood-stained teeth. I don’t know what he ate, but it must have made him thirsty.”
“Now I have a real report for school on ‘How I Spent My Vacation,” says Blaine. “That bull moose we saw was as big as a dinosaur!”
“Today I found out that four-legged animals don’t care how cute I am or what I look like under a snowmobile suit,” said Jennifer. “And that skunk I fed was lots of fun.”
My brother blinks in confusion. He’s flabbergasted that his teenaged daughter finds something other than Boys Boys Boys interesting.
"We each pulled a sled with eight buckets,” Catherine and Cassandra chime in unison. “Puffs of snow came up through our snowshoes. We did the Snowshoe Shuffle!”
Ken shoots me a withering stare. He’s never seen the twins so coordinated. “Okay,” he says, “you proved your point.”
Then Tanya pipes in:
“Uncle’s trip into the woods was boring! He kept wasting sap feeding all the animals, and when I tried to feed a beaver it whacked my leg. I’ll be sore for days! And who knows what sort of cute boys I missed at the hockey game!”
“I, on the other hand,” a voice with an accent says, “had the most wonderful time in my life.”
I turn to see a five-foot high redhead girl stepping forward.
“Who are you?” I ask.
“I’m the Canadian exchange student that Missus Go-We-All”—my sister—“is stuck with for a month.” The twelfth child. “Thanks to you, Uncle, I know what I’m going to do with the rest of my life.”
“And what would that be?” I ask her.
“I’m going to be a Canadian Mountie—Forestry Branch. I’ll organize tours to show people what you’ve showed us here, right down to the hot chocolate.”
“And people think cooking maple syrup is boring,” I say.
|Alan Linton is a prisoner at the Okeechobee Correctional Institution. .|