It’s March and we’re into the earliest sugaring season we’ve ever had. I’d planned to spend January and February learning everything I could about tapping trees, but somehow that didn’t happen. I spent my time keeping up with maple sales, going to annual meetings (held in January so produce farmers aren’t inconvenienced), picking up or dropping the kiddos, making drops and placing spouts.
Drops, pipeline, spouts…. all part of the tapping process. Tapping a tree is literally that – you walk around with a drill (cordless these days!) and drill a hole into the tree then place the spout that is connected to the pipeline with a drop (also pipeline, just a short piece) into the tree and gently thunk it into place with a hammer. The pipeline stays up year round, and we’ve found that the most effective way to tap trees is to divide the work into two tasks. The first person walks up and down the lines snipping off the ends of the pipeline (snipping off the end ensures a more sanitary draw off this year’s run of sap and then in some years, like this one, you add a new drop to re-lengthen out the line that you’ve been snipping away at for the past few years) and then connecting the new drop with the attached spout by using a heavy weird piece of hand machinery that serves no other purpose. The next person comes along, decides where to place the spout (you want to distribute your tapholes evenly around the tree to minimize any stress to the tree), drills, thunks, done. Next tree.
This sounds basic enough, and it is. But, like life generally, it gets tricky. First off, you’re walking in the snow and, in our sugarwoods, going up a hill. At its best, this is good hard work, like a satisfying hike. At its worst, you end up scrambling / crawling up a hill while wearing snowshoes that get in the way, trying not to get clunked in the knee by the heavy metal tools you are carrying and wishing you had a third hand to carry your bag of spouts. Oh, and you are paying such close attention to not missing any tapped trees that you get perpetually whipped in the face by maple saplings. Good stuff.
At first, the tangle of pipelines running up and down the mountain looked like a huge mess to me, but as I spent days in the woods, the geometry of the layout started to appear. And much like the satisfaction I got from deciphering the Metro maps in Paris or the BART lines in the Bay Area, when I could start to see the layout of the individual lines winging off the bigger lines leading to the mainlines, I felt a sense of triumph. That triumph was short-lived when, inevitably, John or Travis or Nick would identify a short line I missed. I took to simply contradicting them and deciding that they were mistaken, I didn’t miss a line. It was the only possible dignified defense.
Of course, being told I missed a line was nowhere near as humbling as being told I placed a spout at a dead tree. Trees die over the course of the year and sometimes it’s clear because they are snapped in half from wind or heavy snow or a fungus has gotten to them. Sometimes you don’t know they’re dead until you start to drill and you can hear the difference in the texture of the wood. Or sometimes you are so absorbed in your task, in moving from tree to tree through the snow, that you put a spout at a 10-foot tall maple stump and your husband almost falls over laughing when he notices.
My first time out I had Lytle and had to put her on my back. She enjoyed it at first, then protested a bit, then fell asleep. This was for the best as I was frequently ducking under lines to move from one side to the other, and she slept through my crouching and crawling under lines, trying not to get her backpack frame stuck. She fell asleep with her head nodded forward, also a good strategic choice as her face was shielded from whippy sapling branches. I don’t recommend backpacking it with super little kids on tapping day, but I’m looking forward to taking James out on a warmer day to walk lines, or maybe after sugaring season to pull spouts (the spouts can’t stay in the tree year round).
Truth be told, it wasn’t a satisfying tapping season for me. I didn’t learn to use a cordless drill on a tree. I never had a charming trailside lunch or sipped cocoa out of a thermos that looked like it used to belong to a coal miner. And I never really made it out into the sugarwoods more than 5 or 6 times for one reason or another.
But now that the sap is running and we are boiling, I walk into the sugarhouse and smell the maple syrup, I throw wood on the fire, I breathe in the lovely humid sap-steamed air and I remember my frozen hands and feet. I remember my sore legs. I remember the heavy awkward tools. I remember the pride I felt when I recognized a dead tree and did not put a spout on it. And I think about next January. Yeah, I’ll tap that.