The Flavour of Spring

If you asked me what word I associate most with spring, it would be maple. Not sunshine, or warmth, or rebirth, or flowers, or thankfuckwinterisfinallyover.

Maple.

See, I’ve always lived in areas of Canada that produce a lot of maple syrup. And I don’t mean that figuratively. Maple syrup is a huge business, and there’s a lot of money in it – so much that the Great Canadian Maple Syrup Heist, in which 3,000 tonnes of syrup valued at over $18 million was stolen from Qu├ębec warehouses, is categorized as the most valuable theft in Canadian history.

Yeah, we take our maple syrup seriously. Hell, I take our maple syrup seriously, and I don’t even like the stuff. Sometimes I worry I’m going to get kicked out of the country, considering that I don’t like maple syrup, Tim Horton’s, or hockey. But surely the fact that I used to make maple syrup when I was a kid must be a point in my favour.

Or, at least, I did my part.

Like many of my childhood projects, making maple syrup stemmed from my father being a frustrated farmer. If he’d had his druthers, he’d have been living miles away from the nearest neighbour, raising livestock and crops. Since that wasn’t in the cards, he did what was, to him, the next best thing, and moved the family to a small village outside the city, where he could have enough yard for a big garden while still being close enough to commute to his job.

Beyond having a garden, the yard of my childhood home also had several maple trees. When I was still single digits in age, my father decided that we should make use of them and enlisted my ‘help’ in making maple syrup. However, while it was something we were theoretically doing together, the reality is, I was too young to actually do much of anything beyond follow him around and watch him work.

The first step in making maple syrup is tapping the trees to collect the sap. This involves drilling a hole in the trunk (which I couldn’t do because the drill was too big and heavy), and then pounding a spigot into the hole (which I also couldn’t do because I was too small to get any force behind my swing, and was also so uncoordinated that I more often than not missed the spigot entirely). Hang a bucket on the spigot for the sap to flow into, and when you have enough, you boil the sap to reduce it to syrup (which I wasn’t allowed to do because my father was afraid I’d burn myself.)

What I could do was collect the sap. And believe me, I collected sap like a demon. Because not only did we tap the maple trees in our yard, we tapped the trees at several neighbour’s places, as well. I’d make daily rounds, tromping around the neighbourhood, pouring sap from the little buckets hanging off the spigots into a bigger bucket that I could barely carry when it was full. Back home, I’d pour what I’d collected into 5-gallon pails for storage until we were ready to boil, and when the season was done, I’d deliver small jars of syrup in thanks to the neighbours who’d let us tap their trees.

It was only maybe four yards in total. But I was small and the pails, to me at least, were heavy, and my klutzy self had to be careful not to spill anything, and there was enough sap I often couldn’t carry it all in one trip, so it seemed like a huge amount of work. And even though I didn’t like the end product and wouldn’t reap the rewards of my hard work, I still enjoyed it.

Sugaring season, as it’s often called, is in the spring, when the temperature drops below freezing at night and gets above freezing during the day, which is what causes the sap to run. It’s a magical time, when there’s still snow on the ground but it’s warm enough to be comfortable, and the sun seems somehow brighter than at any other time of year. The snow dampens sounds, and even though there might be people Right Over There, it feels like you’re all alone in the world. I loved being out in it, and my sap collecting runs gave me a perfect excuse – so much so that I’d often go out multiple times a day ‘just to check’ even though I knew there wouldn’t be enough sap running to be worth the trip.

My father and I only made maple syrup for a few years, but the memories stuck hard with me – at least partly, I’m sure, because I don’t have a lot of positive memories of my father, and these ones are pretty decent overall. I always figured my relationship with maple syrup ended when we stopped.

And then I met Ron.

Ron’s a big maple syrup fan, but he doesn’t like to buy it from the grocery store. He prefers to go straight to the source, so every spring, we take a road trip to Donkin’s Maple Sugar Woods, near Springhill, Nova Scotia. There are multiple syrup producers there, so it tends to be very busy, with the tiny parking full to overflowing and cars spilling out onto both sides of the main road. Even with all the people, though, things are spread out enough, and that springtime magic still works, so it never feels crowded.

The walk through the woods in the sunshine to Donkin’s sugar shack always brings to mind those days when I would go through the neighbourhood with my bucket. Lots of things have changed since I was a child, though. The spigots are plastic instead of metal, and sap isn’t collected in buckets anymore, but instead runs to a central collection point through tubing that zig-zags among the trees.

And, of course, Donkin’s is a much larger production than mine ever was. It’s way more than just a soup pot on a stovetop. They’ve got a massive stainless steel evaporator with proper ventilation, heated by a wood fire.

But there’s that moment when I open the shack’s door and the scent of boiling sap wafts over me. That moment when I smell that smell that’s not quite sweet enough to be syrup, but is ever-so-close.

To this day, that’s still the moment that something shifts inside of me and I feel that spring has finally arrived.

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