Sapping trees is sweet – and worth the wait

By Ray Yurkowski

The sweet sap of the sugar maple was known and valued by Aboriginal peoples of eastern North America long before the arrival of European settlers. ‘Sinzibuckwud,’ the Algonquin (a Native American tribe) word for maple syrup, means literally ‘drawn from wood.’ According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, Native Americans traded what they called sweetwater with the colonists and after the passage of the 1764 Sugar Act, which imposed high tariffs on imported sugar; maple sweeteners became even more popular.

Maple syrup is produced only in North America since Europe does not have the proper weather conditions to produce meaningful amounts of sap. And it all depends on the weather. Sap flows for only a short period of time, from three to six weeks if conditions are right. In the Maple Syrup Book, author Marilyn Linton says native people celebrated those few weeks, called Sugar Month, or Maple Moon, with special ceremonies. “Sometimes dances were performed as the trees were tapped because it was believed that dancing would bring warmer weather to the sugar bush and make the sap flow,” she writes. “When the early settlers arrived in Canada, they watched the native people tap maple trees and boil the sap down to make syrup and sugar. Improvements were made. Instead of cutting a gash in the bark with a hatchet, the pioneers drilled holes into the tree. Then, wooden spouts, called ‘spiles,’ were pushed into the hole.”

 Hauling heavy sap buckets in the ice and slush was hard work. Linton cites an entry in an 1870 diary: “You will sleep soundly after gathering thirty barrels of sap.”

At Warkworth, Ontario, Alice and George Potter are getting ready for the Maple Syrup Festival, an event that has grown over the past 25 years, to celebrate the centuries-old tradition. At the two-day festival, slated for March 10 and 11, there’s still an opportunity to see how the First Nations and early pioneers did it. “The kids seem to get a big kick of watching the sap drip into the bucket,” said George.
But these days, the maple farm has gone high-tech with plastic tubing pipelines carrying the sap directly from the tree to the evaporator house. As well as celebrating the maple with sap-making demonstrations and taffy on the snow, there will also be sleigh rides, log-sawing contests and snowshoe competitions along with lots of entertainment: live music, clog dancers, step dancers and square dancers.

The weekend event attracts about 8,000 people each year from as far as Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa and New York State. And that’s just at the main event. People have started dropping by on the weekend following the festival; those who try to avoid the crowds. “The thing is,” said George with a laugh, “so many are showing up they’re part of another crowd.” The festival started out as a series of visitation events on special weekends and, says

George, “It seemed to grow.”
 Alice, a retired elementary school teacher, and her husband, George, who over the years, has worked at a lumberyard, transported mail for the post office and as the owner of a successful men’s clothing store, have been making maple syrup at the Sandy Flat Sugar Bush for about 35 years.

It started out as a hobby, but harvesting the first agricultural crop of the year isn’t unfamiliar territory: both were raised on a farm. Sandy Flat has “been a sugar bush since 1840, that we know of,” said George. “It’s been tapped, on and off, since then.” A perfect year at the sugar bush – freezing nights and four to eight-degree temperatures during the day every day through the season – would realize one litre of finished syrup for every spigot in the tree and at Sandy Flat, there are 5,000 taps. And each of those litres takes as much as 40 litres of sap to produce. But, says George, “it doesn’t happen very often.” As soon as the buds on the trees begin to open, the sap is no longer suitable for making syrup; it takes on a bitter taste.

According to folklore, when the frogs begin to sing, the syrup season is over. The syrup produced at Sandy Flat Sugar Bush has won four world championships, as well as countless awards from local fairs. But George points to one of which he is especially proud, from the heart of the U.S. maple country, in Vermont.

As well, there’s a market for sap, straight from the tree. First Nations, and Koreans in particular, will buy five-gallon buckets of sap for a month-long regimen to cleanse their body. This year, the Ontario Maple Syrup Producers have unveiled a new campaign to promote the nutrition benefits of maple syrup, which association president Ray Bonenberg says have now been scientifically analyzed.

Maple syrup is now proven to be one of the safest and most nutritional sweeteners available – even better than honey.


1 – A sap bucket fashioned from a BP (British Petroleum) heavy-duty, motor-oil can used in the times of the Great Depression.

2 – Maple industry artifacts line the walls at the pancake house

3 – Old sap buckets serve as lamp shades at the Sandy Flat Sugar Bush pancake house.


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