I knew this, and still, I was blown away by the intricate network of tubes that Len had set up in his sugarbush when I saw it in person. He is a relatively small sugaring operation, and still, the set up looked like something out of science fiction.
Len said that school groups will often come to his farm on field trips. As someone from away who took field trips to museums and colonial reenactment centers, I was suddenly very jealous, much like I was when
I made butter for the first time.
Len showed me the tank where sap gathers from the network of maple trees. I was surprised that the sap was clear. Even though I knew the sap still had to be caramelized, for some reason, I still had a mental image in my head of delicious amber syrup flowing straight from the trees.
We set off to find a tree that would be good to tap. It had been cold for the past few days, so Len we should hike up a hill on his property to get to a section of his forest he said is usually warmer than the rest of the forest. I was skeptical — in my experience, the higher you go, the colder you tend to be — but he was right. I guess there is something to knowing the microclimates of your land.
After Len picked a big, relatively unscarred tree with a sunny south facing side, we checked for spots where the trees had been tapped previously to make sure we weren’t trying to extract sap from an empty artery.
Then, Len demonstrated how to drill a hole in the tree with the hand auger by steadying it on my hip or stomach and cranking in with a simple push-pull motion using both hands. After giving it a shot on my hip, I ultimately chose the stomach method (I’m not too proud to admit that there is a little more cushioning there). Using the hand auger was a little like patting my cushioned belly and rubbing my head at the same time, but eventually, I got the hang of it. It reminded me of
using the auger to drill a hole for ice fishing — only, horizontal.
Then, I hammered the spire gently into the tree. Len said the sound of hammering would change when I got to the depth I needed. I listened: tap, tap, tap…then, thunk!
Tragically, though, the sap wasn’t flowing. Len and I hung one of the buckets on the spire, put a cover on top to prevent debris from falling in and went off to try another tree. We crouched under lines exploring the forest until we found a red maple tree that Len liked.
I used all the skills I had just learned, even more confidently this time. Despite our best efforts though, we still had no luck.
It was still too cold, Len explained, but maybe it would warm up later in the day. He proposed we wait a while until the trees had a chance to sit in the sun — but then, suddenly, Linda received an urgent text message to return to the newsroom right away. Maine had just announced its first positive test for the coronavirus and she was needed to cover the breaking news.
Like with many things lately, it seems, our maple tapping adventure was cut short. Len and I bumped elbows and I thanked him. He joked that I was ready to be hired out for my maple tapping skills. I laughed, and promised I would be back soon. Maple sugaring season has just begun, after all.
Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik
My tried-and-true takeaways
Tapping maple trees is fun and easy with a few specialized tools. Though the tubing operations are impressive and worth seeing, you don’t necessarily need a set up like Len’s in order to get a little bit of sap for your family to experiment with. Even though I wasn’t successful this time around, I am confident that I will be next time, when conditions are warmer.
If you have maple trees in your yard, tapping maple trees for sap — and preparing maple syrup as well — may be a great way to pass the time and bond as a family over the next few weeks of social distancing and self-isolation. If you don’t, though, I hope you enjoyed this column as a way to vicariously experience the weird and wonderful process of tapping maple trees. We will all get together soon enough to celebrate this hallowed Maine tradition. Trust me, I’ll be there.