SOLON, Maine — Steam swirled around Lori Dana on Thursday as she checked the fire under the bubbling maple sap. It softened the skin, fogged up eyeglasses and filled the air with a light, sugary scent.
“You want it to stay at a rolling boil,” she said, nearly hidden by the blanket of steam. Dana took a deep breath, pulling in the aroma. She can tell by the smell how close the sap is to becoming the prized maple syrup.
At one end of the stainless steel evaporator, her husband, Barry Dana, knelt on the floor, pushing beech and ash logs into the firebox.
The couple produces the only American Indian-made syrup for market in New England, “makwan” in Barry Dana’s native language.
Dana, a former Penobscot Nation chief, sells the syrup at art fairs throughout New England alongside his traditional birch bark baskets.
“They seem to go together so well,” he said. “And making syrup is part of the traditional culture of my tribe.”
Dana said the tradition of spring syrup-making is an important one for him to keep. “What part of our culture isn’t important?” he asks. “The Penobscot Nation used pure sap as medicine, medicine that tastes good.”
The couple tap 250 trees on their 10-acre property and another 30-acre property abutting it, and began syruping six years ago by boiling sap in a pot on a grill in their driveway.
“We wanted to be able to pour it with reckless abandon on everything,” Lori Dana said.
Across Somerset County, there are sugarbushes where hundreds of thousands of trees are tapped every spring.
But the Danas said they are happy with the small size of their operation, which produces about 35 gallons of syrup a season. “Our sugarhouse is smaller than small, but this is a very sustainable method,” Barry Dana said.
He said he does not use a reverse osmosis system such as that employed by large Maine producers, even though it causes the sap to boil more quickly. “It also removes a lot of the vitamins and minerals,” he said.
He also prefers using a wood fire rather than oil.
For every 4 gallons of sap harvested from sugar maples, the Danas get a single gallon of pure maple syrup. The sap is gathered in buckets from the trees, poured through a filter into a gravity-fed system that slowly moves the sap into the evaporator. The liquid is filtered three more times before the amber-gold syrup is bottled.
Even on a cold, very windy day, Dana was getting plenty of sap. The wind blew through the tops of the evergreens, and the 30 inches of snow on the ground had been pounded hard by the recent sleet and rain. Even though plastic tubing is used to connect the tapped trees, the work is labor-intensive.
Dana often has to snowshoe into the stands of trees. Each collector bucket is poured, cupful by cupful, into smaller carrying buckets, then brought back to the sugarhouse.
In Maine, maple syrup is a multimillion-dollar industry, with licensed producers creating 215,000 gallons of syrup last year. The syrup season hasn’t been successful for the past two years, however, as colder-than-usual temperatures slowed production and then warm temperatures caused the trees to bud.
Maple trees need warm days and cold nights to force the sap to flow.
“It’s been about three years since we’ve had a really good flow,” Lori Dana said. “Maybe this year will be better.”
Maine syrup producers across the state are preparing for Maine Maple Sunday, which will be celebrated March 22.
More than 70 sugar makers around the state open the doors of their sugarhouses for the public to join them in the annual first rite of spring — making maple syrup. Most sugarhouses offer free tasting and a live demonstration of how syrup is produced, from tap to table. Many offer a variety of other treats and activities, including syrup on pancakes or ice cream, sugarbush tours, sleigh or wagon rides, and lots more. Many sugarhouses will arrange special tours and demonstrations for groups on other days by prior arrangement.
A full list of participating sugar makers can be found at www.getrealmaine.com.