My Neighbor's Maple Syrup Sugar Shack

There’s a family I know in the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia that has made maple syrup for over a century. As they are now short-handed of youngsters leaving for city work and the retainers get older and frailer, I offered to help this year.

I sat down with Gary in his sugar shack. He is the older of two brothers who manage the operation. They had already checked the network of tubes tapped into sugar maple trees that crisscross the wooded slopes. The sap runs along the plastic channels toward a main line to finally reach a large tank outside the shack.

“In the past we tapped each tree separately,” he told me. “Before we left for school, while it was still dark, we had to bring down heavy buckets full of sap from the woods.”

“I guess winters were harder in those days,” I said. “This is another mild one.”

“Oh yeah. It started snowing in November and the ground was covered until March, even April. Blizzards piled snow high as fence posts.”

His brother Ronnie came inside. As first I didn’t recognize him in the dense steam filling the room.

“Hi. We need the extractor to clear the air,” he said, wafting a hand to clear the fog.

“I’m up for that,” I chipped in. “When your family started making syrup was it to supplement farm income in winter?”

“Not at all.” It was Gary who replied. “What our Granddaddy made was the only source of sweetness for the family. He never bought sugar at the store.”

“Nowadays, we only make it to keep the tradition going, and sales just about cover our costs,” Ronnie added.

Before we fixed the extractor on the tin roof, I brought in some logs from the huge pile they had cut and split last year. It’s cheaper to boil sap over wood fires than use electric or gas heaters. There’s no shortage of wood in and around the Monongahela forest.

Much of their equipment is homemade and looks antique. Harvesting sap doesn’t cost a penny when it runs by gravity and is boiled with local wood, but costly in time and effort. The fluid is fed into a large tank over the first fire which is kept alight around the clock. If it starts foaming Ronnie squirts from a proprietary bottle to raise the surface tension. In the old days they used a piece of bacon. The warmed sap passes to the evaporator, the most modern part of the system, where it bubbles over a second fire and generate clouds of steam. 100 gallons of sap is concentrated to about 2 gallons of syrup. We threw logs on the fires every half hour to keep them hot. Ronnie checked the specific gravity of the liquor with a hydrometer (looking like a long thermometer): the optimum is a narrow band.

sugar shack for making maple syrup in West Virginia

It’s obvious when a sugar shack is making maple syrup. While one chimney smokes from a log fire another belches steam from the evaporator. The process runs for up to a month.

I asked Gary to explain the daily cycle.

“Sap don’t flow at night cos of freezin, but starts when it warm up.”

When a tree gets warmer its interior pressure rises and sap flows up the xylem tubes to drip out of holes tapped through the bark, like blood oozing out of a wound. The sugar synthesized in the leaves by photosynthesis the previous summer has been stored in the tree as starch (a polymer of glucose). As spring approaches it is mobilized ahead of the season of growing shoots and leaves, and very slightly sweetens the sap. The yellow-bellied sapsucker knows this too as it drills holes in smaller boughs. When the bird returns it may find an insect in the sticky sap, and enjoy the protein morsel in a carbohydrate sauce in dead of winter.

During cold weather tree roots remain unfrozen and soil moisture is drawn into them by the process of osmosis to generate “root pressure.” Sap rises up the tree in the xylem. That’s the principle, although plant physiology is more complicated. I love to see a family honoring a time-honored process using equipment and principles I can understand in an era when the technology I use is beyond my comprehension. Besides, making maple syrup is a gentle art that does no harm to trees or wildlife.

Girdling the Maple

Consider the consequences if your largest blood vessels were coursing under surface of the skin instead of deep inside the body. I know it’s hard to imagine. But if the aorta ran the length of your back, branching out to limbs and major organs, the pulse wave might be visible and certainly palpable over the spine. The vena cava would return blood along the midline from belly to chest where it would plunge inside to the heart.  In a lean body this great vein would look like a bluish canal through the skin. Such a vascular anatomy offers no obvious advantages but there are several disadvantages, including a greater risk of hemorrhage. It wouldn’t take a deep wound to release a fatal gusher from either of these vessels; even a bruise might cause enough swelling to seriously affect returning venous blood.

sapsucker bore holesMy crazy musing began when I noticed rows of shallow, neatly-drilled holes encircling the trunk of our prized Japanese maple tree. This was the unmistakable signature of a yellow-bellied sapsucker which visits us in winter. Besides licking the sap, the bird finds insects that are attracted to the weeping holes so that its work generates carbohydrates and proteins for its diet. By springtime the sapsucker had left for its northern breeding grounds and the holes had dried up, but the fresh foliage was far less luxuriant than in previous years. Since I couldn’t find any signs of the tree being attacked by insects, molds or viruses I assumed the woodpecker had damaged its conducting vessels which, like the vascular anatomy in my imaginary person, lie just under the surface.

Yellow-bellied sapsucker by John James Audubon: Birds of America
Yellow-bellied sapsucker by John James Audubon: Birds of America

Although there is no circulatory system in plants the vascular tubes are somewhat analogous to blood vessels. Xylem carries water and minerals up from the root system, while phloem shifts the products of photosynthesis in the foliage to other parts. Between these two great highways lies the cambium consisting of a stem cell type (meristem) which generates new xylem and heartwood on one side and new phloem and tree bark on the other.

Trees could not have evolved conducting vessels deep in their boles because the inert heartwood would prevent their girth from increasing. But the price paid for this superficial distribution under the bark is a greater vulnerability to traumatic injury and infection. Where the sapsucker had been drilling the xylem and phloem was permanently damaged because cambium is not replaceable. Fortunately the harm to our tree is not fatal or as serious as lesions to

Frost damage in tree
Beech tree with frost lesion

others in our yard caused by frost or insect borers which expose heartwood to the elements and disease. Only by complete girdling, as American pioneers often did when clearing the eastern forests for farming, is a tree condemned slowly to an early death.

One day while hiking in l’Estrie when I lived in Quebec I came across a tiny shack with a lopsided metal chimney poking out of its roof.  I could have easily missed it deep in the maple forest, but curiosity forced by legs to follow the snow tracks of someone who had branched off from the beaten trail. I ended up at the front door, and because it was unlocked I stepped inside.

It was a dream house for a child. Every surface I touched felt sticky like cotton candy (candy floss). It was a sugar shack where maple syrup was still being made in the traditional way. There was a huge boiler in the corner standing over an open fireplace from which a chimney pipe ascended to the ceiling. This was where sap would soon be slowly evaporating to produce one gallon of amber syrup from every 40 gallons of thin fluid tapped from maple trees outside.

I didn’t have to look far to find those trees. Many of those more than nine inches in diameter had holes now vacant but which in previous seasons had held a spile from which sap would drain into a bucket. Some of them had multiple holes a few inches apart and often arranged in a spiral pattern. The harvesters had been more careful than my sapsucker to avoid harming the trees, but I can’t blame it when pancake days come round.maple syrup

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