Making maple syrup is taxing business. Jon Currey took the winter of 2005 and 2006 off between college and med school to help his father set up the syrup operation. Art’s brother, Al, traveled from downstate to help when he could. Son Rob joined them for the last two of the six months it took to hammer some 6,000 taps into maple trees, working often on snowshoes, and attach the taps to the labyrinth of vacuum lines that Art engineered to run downhill to a collection tank housed in a rough-sawn plank pump shack. (The combination of gravity and vacuum doubles the volume of sap that can becollected by the old-fashioned bucket method.)
Once strung, the lines remain in the woods year round, but the taps are pulled and the lines cleaned and sealed to prevent bugs from getting into them. Inserting the taps back into the trees in time for sap season each March takes five men the equivalent of four solid workdays. Jon counts it as one of his favorite chores:
“The snow is deep, the days are starting to warm up. Neighbors, friends and family tend to congregate outside on those first warm days. You’re working at something you love, surrounded by family and friends. There’s the anticipation of sap to be flowing. There’s nothing better,” he says.
Three more weeks of work, spread out through the year, are devoted to laying in enough hardwood to fuel the behemoth wood furnace that fires the evaporator, burning up to 40 cords every syrup season. The Currey men fell, cut and split the trees—mostly huge beech trees that stand 100 feet and measure three feet around—work that Art says is better than going to a gym.
Once the taps are in, the wood is stacked, and the rest of the prep is finished, the waiting begins for that magic combination of freezing and thawing temperatures that makes sap run. When that happens, work in the woods revolves around a constant check for leaks in lines, lines down, frozen lines, faulty vacuum boosters and pumps—the any number of things that can go wrong in 35 acres of forest—followed by the often arduous task of fixing the problem. The patrolling is constant and sometimes continues into the night.
“It’s one of the more thankless jobs,” Rob says. “‘We sit around after dinner and say, ‘Who is going to go out?’”
A sap run means the elephant-sized stainless steel evaporator housed in the sap house burns wood for hours at a time, turning sweet water to syrup. Then, this cement-floored room in a corner of the faded red barn becomes a hive of activity. Every eight minutes—a beeper signals the time—someone must swing the heavy, cast-iron door open on the firebox to feed three-foot logs to the flames. Another worker is assigned the crucial job of monitoring the temperature and fluid level on the evaporator so the syrup doesn’t burn.
Finally, usually Jan and Betty—working gloveless with steady hands at age 87 last spring—along with friends and family members, fill jugs and bottles with the steaming hot, amber syrup that flows from the spigot of the finishing kettle. The warmth and hot-caramel scent of boiling syrup attracts even off-duty crew to the sap house.
“Inevitably there will be 10 or 15 people hanging around, from my grandma to the 10-year-old neighbor kid, Jake, who never stops asking questions,” says Rob. “It smells like syrup, there is a bunch of fellowship going on—it’s just a special time.”
Some evenings, dinner is in the sap house so that everyone can eat together. It’s usually something easy, served on paper plates. But later, everyone always recalls it tasting like so much more.
Elizabeth Edwards is Managing Editor at Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. [email protected]