Twilight of the Sugar Maples

| September / October 2004

Of rising sap -- and temperatures -- in the Wisconsin woods

A sharp bit cuts a clean hole. Each year as winter slides toward spring, I head into my family's woods in northern Wisconsin with the best drill bits I can find. I am the fourth generation of my father's family to tap our sugar bush, a hillside grove of 200 sugar maples whose warped limbs interlace high above the forest floor. Together with a few soaring pines, these maples form an enclave partially spared by the loggers who began clearing this area late in the 19th century. Sugar maples grow throughout our woods, but only in the sugar bush are there old, shaggy-barked trees -- trees that might already have been growing here in 1837 when the Ojibwe, who call sugar maple "the man tree," ceded this land to the United States government.

Tapping maples is, in principle, fairly simple: Drill a small hole an inch and a half into the trunk of each tree, insert a spile, and place a container beneath it to catch the drips. On days when the maples are plashy, a good one runs over a gallon of sap, which must be gathered and boiled down to the brink of sugar saturation. Hitting the perfect density is the trickiest part of the process. Stop too soon and the syrup will spoil easily; boil too long and some of the sugar will form rock candy.