Making Northern Michigan Syrup

English instructor James McCullough, at North Central Michigan College, in Petoskey, asked his students to write essays about Northern Michigan life. Then he asked MyNorth to share six of the essays on the World Wide Web. We said yes. We are posting one each weekday until the set is complete. Enjoy the piece below by Rachel S. Zowada.


Amidst the dripping of icicles, the singing of birds, and the crunching of ice, I can almost hear the sap run. The metal pails are what give it away; they’re the calling card for the man that drills away at their soft wooden flesh. He uses a hand cranked drill and with the assistance of tiny hands, the metal tip presses into the tree. Cranking the handle clockwise, it drives into the tree which bears scars from years past. The man blows into the freshly made hole to clear the saw dust. He steps back, handing little hands a metal spigot. She fumbles with the slick metal, struggling to place it in the hole but she succeeds. Tapping it in together with a hammer they wait for the first drops to appear. Anticipation rises as the sweet liquid gains speed and travels down the spigot. Jumping with joy the girl leans under the spile with mouth open, eager to catch the first drops of sap. The man smiles and hands her a metal pail with a little tin hat, and she hangs it on the tree.

One down—eight to go.

It’s seven in the morning and I have to be out the door in five minutes, but I can’t pull myself away from the window. The metal buckets that rest on the three, massive, sugar maples have caught my attention. For the past 15 years I’ve helped my father drill them, it’s become a tradition and something that we look forward to every year. I came home the other day to see the pails hanging on the trees. Realization settles in and like the plinking of sap hitting the freshly emptied buckets, it hits me that I’ve grown up.

We often complain when we run out of our Maple Syrup, resorting to the expensive syrup from the store, or stooping low enough to buy the “generic brand.” My family likes our syrup thick, and sweet. The process takes time and patience. My father goes out to the lean to and fills up the boiling pan with fresh sap every hour. The sap is stored in a fifty gallon drum where it’s drawn from to be boiled down. The smell of sweetness fills the air, making your mouth water as you lean over the bubbling liquid. In the final stages the thicker batch is brought inside to the kitchen stove where it’s finished.

The canning jars sit on the worn kitchen counter, full of sticky, caramel-colored liquid. They act like mirrors, reflecting everything in the dimly lit kitchen. Pop, pop, pop. The lids on the jars seal and a smile spreads across my face. Excitement bubbles inside of me, we’ve successfully stolen from the trees once again.


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