I gathered sap by starlight and a waning moon. The storms so long snagged upon our ragged mountain tops had finally torn free and slipped out into the quiet valley in the late hours of the day, out across to the Eastern Shore, to disperse into the vast Atlantic. Now there was only the sharpened tree tops reaching up as if trying to grab the glistening stars from an indigo sky.
I had to gather or sap would be lost in the night. The weather had fluxed enough to make the trees massive roots begin their powerful job of sucking great quantities of water from the Earth's wet soil. Forcing it up through the groggy trunks then down into the roots again as the temperatures dropped off. An early wake up call, a nudge to say that Spring would soon come to the mountains.
I turned my eyes from the sky to the dark woods that I was about to enter. In the night's dark tricks, the trail ahead looked like a tunnel of black. The ground was crunching as setting cold began to crust the earth. I closed my eyes a moment to let them get use to the darkness. When I opened them I sucked in a deep breath. Single drops, left behind by the storm, hung on every limb and twig and scattered on the ground. The drops freezing into perfect crystals to catch the scarce and precious light. A million tiny lanterns to mirror the stars above. I did not move for a moment, all I could do was take in the world, sparkling, deep into the stretching forest.
It was a sound that finally made me move. Somewhere deep up the dark trail ahead of me, beyond even the light of enchanted ice crystals and starlight. Something large and slow.
"A bear" I whispered to myself? Something, and I decided I should not discover what on my own, in the dark. I gathered quickly through the trees, stopping now and then to listen. Nothing! I turned for the open field and headed for the yellow glow of the house beyond. I heard the movement in the forest far behind me. What ever it was, it seemed unhurried. Probably a bear moving slowly along the black trail, just looking for something to eat. Not me though! I was stepping within the glowing halo of the houses' light. Glancing back, the world beyond my force field of light seemed much darker then it had just moments before. There was something though, large and dark just at the farthest edges of the lights reach. Could be anything in the nights dark magic, a bush, a pool of deeper shadow cast by a trunk. I would consider it later I thought and headed for solid walls.
Cold night air and warm sweet air swirled crazily as the front door swung open. I dropped the buckets beside the stove and began to fill the sugar pans. The steam rose up in sweet waves into my face, chasing away the cold that still clung to the skin. I could not take my thoughts from the starlight and crystals of the world outside the door or the "something' in the dark. It was very early for bear. I would have to look for sign in the morning light. But for now, it was time to stoke the fires hot and cook syrup late into the night.
Friday, January 29, 2010
Monday, January 25, 2010
Rows and rows of big dark cloud...and the rain keeps falling all around.
At first it fell in the tiniest of particles, so small, perfectly round atomized fragments of water that could float through the air and land so lightly upon your skin that it felt like the brush of a cold unseen hand. I had looked up from gathering sap, surprised by the cold touch that had not been there the moment before. Woolly sodden clouds drooped down towards me, and I would swear that there had been white puffs and turquoise blue when I had started emptying my sap buckets. But then I had been distracted by the nearly empty buckets, when I had been certain that the sap would run faster today. I guess the trees had felt it coming for the temperature rose soon after the rain had started and the sap that had been running good just hours before, was slowing to a lazy drip. I gathered what there was and headed for the house. Before I had the first pans full of fresh sap the rain was coming down in a steady shower and the temp climbed. By evening the rain was falling hard. By the darkest hours before dawn it seemed to pour down on the tin roof like a river had shifted into the heavens above and it was steamy warm. No sap the falling morning but a river where a creek had been and a plain of brown rapids and white caps where the river had been. The river trail where some of our best sugar maples was flooded, but the temperatures would drop in a few days and another run was due.
Saturday, January 23, 2010
Let me go back a few days to when I first started tapping for the season and tell you about an interesting fellow we met along the trail. I was really excited about setting my first taps for the year. The morning was cold, but warm temps were coming in a few hours . I could not wait any longer for " sugar fever was a burning in me so.' I hurried out with my tapping gear leaving Lakota, my son, to eat breakfast with his grandma. The sky was deep blue and the ground was covered with an inch of a sparkling , crystal snow that seemed almost magical in the way it sparkled in the bright morning sun. I tapped a few trees, then ran out of jugs ( yes, jugs, I use milk jugs for some of my close by trees) and returned to the house to get more and to get Lakota. In a few minutes he was trotting along beside me, his yellow curls bouncing up and down and his tinkling voice scorning me for having gone without him earlier. He soon forgot his grudge ."Oooh, twacks," he whispered as he leaned low to the fine, sparkling snow.
" Yes, many tracks today" I said.
"Lets see! What kind? " he bent even lower till his nose was a few inches above the prints and his butt was high in the air. He straitened suddenly, looking up at me, pleased. "I think they barrr twacks", he announced.
"Bear! Really? Kitty I think. Very tiny kitty", I said.
He squinted unkindly at me and shook his head.
"Really! Kitty! Now see there's, dog tracks", I pointed. We walked the rest of the way to the maples I had tapped, looking at the different tracks on the ground. Near the edge of the woods we found some small, perfect, hand like prints.
"Opossum", I told him."They have hands almost like yours."
"Monkeys", he announced.
"Not monkeys. Really, they are possum tracks", I said. He gave me another very displeased look. I began working, Lakota began talking, about everything. A few minutes later I looked up from the tree I was tapping and just 3 feet away a black eyed opossum looked back from the sapling beside me. A small dark eyed, young possum, pretty as possums go with a soft, fuzzy coat of gray. Lakota saw it also.
"Wellll loooky there" he said. " A dog!'
"Not a dog, A possum", I told him. He looked at me for a moment as if deciding if I was telling him another lie.
"Well looky there", he said finally, " A poss-M. Well hello little possum. You are just a baby possum. Oh cooochy cooochy coo, little possum". He made little wiggly finger motions in the air at the possum as if tickling him from a far. I quickly warned him not to tickle the possum for real as the possum would not really like to be tickled and might bite him. I went back to work, he went back to air tickling the possum, then just talking to him. He chatted like a little bird to his new friend, telling him with a tinkling voice and dancing hands about everything that is important to little boys, chickens that laid big brown eggs, cartoons, places in the yard were he plays with imaginary dinosaurs and sisters that don't agree with him. When I would look over, the black eyed possum, sitting on a small branch, would be quietly listening to the small boy with the yellow hair. The critter seemed remarkably unafraid and very interested in all the bird- like chatter. His way was not blocked and he could go at any time, but he did not as if mesmerized by his new friend. Lakota went on to explain why Mommy was" dwillen" holes in the trees and that "maple serrriP" would run right out of the holes, and that was why he ( the possum) would see jugs every where on all the" tweees."
Soon I was done tapping and finally convinced Lakota we had to leave our new friend alone and go back inside. Once inside he grabbed his grandmas' hand.
" Let's go Gran'ma. I's got something to show you."
Well he drug his grandma out to look for the possum that was by now long gone.
" We can follow his tracks", Grandma suggested and off they went following perfect hand prints in the fine snow, through the woods. Tracks that led to other trees that we had tapped, by the chicken coop where big brown eggs were laid, through the yard where Lakota liked to play with imaginary dinosaurs and back into the woods again. After a bit Grandma went off one way and Lakota the other.
"Gran'ma, yous going the wrong way", he calls "Hinton did not go that way. He went this-a way"
" Who's Hinton", she asks? Lakota rolled his eyes.
"The poss-M, Gran'ma.", he tells her. "But you don't has to call him Hinton if you don't like. Yous can call him Puppy Lickens' for short."
Of course Grandma is telling me about this later, or trying to, for she is laughing to hard to hardly get words out. Every day for a week, as we would go out to gather sap or tap more trees, we would find tiny, perfect little hand like prints in the crystal snow, following along every trail, to every tree we had tapped. Puppy Lickens' as he is now known, does not seem to ever bother with any tap, just comes to within a few feet of the tree and stops. You can see where he sits, and checks out the tree, maybe waiting to see the syrup run out as promised. Then he moves on along beside our tracks, always beside like he is being careful to follow the large foot prints, to the next tree that has been tapped. If I tap a new one, his tracks are there the next day. Now I can no longer walk along the trail with these small prints following and not wonder at the intelligence and curiosity of this small being. I cannot help but wonder what he must be thinking. This little fuzzy fellow, that met a little yellow haired fellow along the trail one day. A little yellow haired fellow that chattered like a song bird and passed along all kinds of interesting news to the fuzzy fellow about the trail they both shared. For all I know now his name really is Hinton, his nick name has always really been Puppy Lickens' and there is more magic then I ever guessed in the crystal snow and small talk of little souls that meet along the sugar trail.
Thursday, January 21, 2010
From deep, deep freeze to toasty 40's. Warm enough to tap. So tap we did on the 15 Th and a good run of sap followed. A half gallon + of sweet maple syrup. Tickled to pieces! And the fever catches you up for another year. The weather is turning cold again, freezing rain, sleet, snow, so the run is over but another will start again by Monday. It gives us enough time to finish off the sap we have. Cooking is done on the old Home Comfort . What a heat machine! running about 40 gallons sap to 1 gallon syrup.That will change as we tap more reds, 60 to 1 or higher. When the season gets rolling, there will be more sap then can really be handled on the cook stove. We are trying to come up with a makeshift arch ( a giant boiler) outside that will run on junk wood, old pine, etc. that can't be burned inside.
Here are some pictures taken last year at the Highland County Maple Festival.The barn that looks like it is burning is The Rexrode sugar house, their arch is the big old brick one that oozes smoke and flame. The big stainless sap tank and green building is the Puffenbarger sugar shack replacement. The sugar house burned in the second week of festival 2 years ago. Ivan Puffenbarger thought they were done, but the community and customers made sure that they came back, better then ever! They make the best maple doughnuts ever! The tank in picture is full.
Post again later.