ORONO, Maine — Like most people in their Main Street neighborhood in Orono, JC and Ellen Camelio don’t think twice when a neighbor comes over to borrow something or ask a favor.
But when the three Palmeter boys from across the street knocked on the Camelios’ door four years ago to ask if they could drill into their maple trees and screw in some taps for sap, they didn’t know what to think.
Once he realized they weren’t joking, Camelio was skeptical.
“Actually, I was. I didn’t think they’d get a lot, but they got enough to give me a nice mason jar full of maple syrup the first year they did it,” Camelio said.
This year, the Camelios may be lucky if they get a Dixie cup full of syrup as warm temperatures are making the sap run slow.
“This is the first time we’ve collected the sap since we put the taps in over a week ago and we barely got enough for one bucket,” said 13-year-old Josh Palmeter, the middle brother. “We used to get around 20 pints, but we’ll be lucky if we get eight this year.”
And it doesn’t seem to matter where the maple trees are located geographically.
“Even up in Greenville, they’ve been complaining about how it’s going to be a lousy year,” said Doug Palmeter, Josh’s father.
The fact that the Palmeters — Doug, wife Fran, Josh and the other two sons Dan, 10, and Zac, 16 — are tapping trees at all is a surprise to many.
Most people think of tapping trees for syrup as an activity reserved for forests and woods in more isolated, rural areas in Vermont and Maine — not something done on a busy street near downtown Orono.
Cyndi Levesque hails from Madawaska, but she didn’t let the fact she lives on Howard Street in Bangor keep her from putting her family tree-tapping knowledge to use on the six maple trees on her property.
“We started it three years ago as an experiment for school and it has kind of become a family tradition,” said the nurse manager.
All you need are some taps, tubing and buckets to start. Both families said they get their supplies from Blue Seal Feeds N Needs in Bangor.
“Last year, we got 240 gallons of sap, which translates to about six gallons of syrup,” said Levesque. “We’ll probably only get one or two gallons this year because my trees aren’t running at all.”
That means Levesque will have to ration out the natural syrup that she and her three boys have become known for giving out as gifts.
“We gave away a lot for Christmas, but this year you’re going to have to be really special to get some,” Levesque said with a chuckle.
Both Levesque and the Palmeters have turned tree sap gathering and syrup-making into a traditional family activity.
“They love doing it,” said Levesque. “They actually pushed me to do it this year even though it’s a bad season for it.”
Levesque went online to learn the finer points of syrup-making.
“You can’t tap the tree in the same place twice and you have to have a trunk at least four inches of circumference per tap,” she said. “Once we have enough sap, we boil it down in the garage. We can’t do it in the house because there’s so much steam it would peel the paper off the walls.”
Levesque, her boyfriend John Dionne, and her sons Alexandre Bouchard, 12, Pierre-Luc Bouchard, 13, and Dominique Bouchard, 15, use a propane heater and a 100-quart aluminum pot to boil the sap down and then filter it before bottling the syrup.
The Palmeters won’t need a pot that big, judging from the sap yield so far at the midpoint of a short season that typically lasts just three to four weeks.
“Yeah, it’s not like it has been. I think a couple years ago we were over there emptying buckets a couple times a day. That’s a lot of sap over two to three weeks,” Doug Palmeter said. “That was probably the best year we had.”
Levesque will have other “crops” to fall back on this year as she also tends a large garden, grows her own grapes from which she makes wine, and makes several different kinds of pickles.
“People don’t realize how much they can really do even though they live in the city,” she said.
Maine Maple Sunday
Maine Maple Sunday will be held March 25 at Maine Maple Syrup Producers statewide. Most sugarhouses offer free maple syrup samples and demonstrations on how pure Maine maple syrup is made. Many farms offer games, activities, treats, sugarbush tours, music and more. Maine Maple Sunday is always the fourth Sunday in March, although some sugarhouses are offering events for both Saturday and Sunday. For information on participating syrup producers, visit mainemapleproducers.com/maine-maple-sunday-map.html.