When I left the apartment this morning the orange sunrise backlit a church’s steeple. A freight train filled in the foreground like a Rockwell painting. It was a perfect day to grab my dog, Sheila, and head to the woods for a day of sap cooking.
I visited the hardware store to pick up a few draw pins so I could hook my brush hog, one of a few implements I kept after liquidating our machinery. It’s still on the farm and I need to move it out of the new owner’s way.
I intend to develop the already-in-place trails in the woods. My grandfather made them as he rode his Oliver 60 Row Crop Tractor through the woods making firewood and lumber. He loved the woods and told me so often. He would sit in an old abandoned 1949 Plymouth while tending the fire in his little stone cooker every spring, making maple syrup. I remember him using a ladle to test the boiling sap as it neared completion.
“When the liquid sheets as it comes out of the ladle, it’s time to pull the batch off,” he said.
Sheeting is when the fresh syrup thickens and clings to the ladle in a wide “sheet” versus droplets.
I remember his faithful companion – a brown dachshund named Schneider – running alongside the Oliver 60 while I sat on the fender gripping the fore- and rear-fender-mounted headlights for stability. I was 10 years old in 1968; we were headed to the woods on a summer morning. Every time he throttled up the notches on the hand-operated accelerator for the stretch uphill on Hilldale Road he’d shout, “Hi-Oh, Silver!” true to the Lone Ranger version.
Once in the woods he showed great skill in utilizing the foot-controlled individual rear-wheel brakes while gripping the smooth wood patina of the steering wheel spinner knob. He dodged granite boulders and stumps, eventually stopping along a downfall Maple to cut it for firewood. Another task I recall helping with was cutting saw logs for lumber-making. That’s where I learned to use a cant hook to turn the logs while he cut them to length with an old Remington chainsaw.
The trails were further developed by my late uncle, a scientist who built a syrup shack on the property. He increased syrup production with an evaporator and collecting barrels submerged into natural low points in the woods, to accommodate gravity-flow tubing in parts of the woods. I loved his scientific approach to mapping the trees and using a refractometer to record the sap’s sugar content through the years. His records of specific trees through time led to his conclusion that there was no pattern to the annual fluctuation in sugar content of the trees he studied.
I had built a small outdoor cooker in those woods for my own open-pan syrup-making, but hadn’t tended to it in 18 years. I dusted it off, replaced the stovepipe and tapped 30 trees in late March. As of this writing it looks like we’ll have 6 or 7 gallons of syrup. We stuck to the trees right along the trails that we’ve been keeping open all winter; the snow was more than I cared to battle in the deeper part of the woods.
It’s my hope to manage this little 20-acre ancestral property in a way that will allow it to flourish. It’s been in a Managed Forest Land program and there’s a good chance I’ll continue that with some changes.
There are a number of programs that include cost-sharing that I can participate in if I choose. Because I’m new to woodland ownership, I’m having a forest-wildlife specialist and a Farm Bill Wildlife Biologist out to walk my property this afternoon. They will help me sort out some of the options concerning the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service-related programs that woodland owners are eligible for. I’m also anxious to learn more about what tree species besides the obvious Maples and oaks dwell in these woods.
It’s a beautiful day for a walk in the woods. I look forward next week to sharing what I learn. Enjoy the return of spring.