There’s Gold in the Trees of Michigan
By Pete Lathrop
There is Gold in the Trees of Northern Michigan and all over the country!
Spring in northern Michigan is a strange mix of relief and misery. By late February, stores are beginning to feature Spring deals, warm weather clothing is showing up on racks, and by March, all retail establishments are acting like everyone should be in Bermuda shorts and t-shirts. And, of course, the weather up here pays no attention to all the hype. So, the occasional 55-degree day gets the entire populous in a tizzy. Watercooler talk involves topics like, “It’ll be 65 next week for sure” or “Expect another snowfall soon”. People up here are either eternal optimists or pessimists. So, northern Michiganders, as we often call ourselves, have to know how to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear during springtime.
The slow transition of winter to spring is tenuous, but it does strike a happy note for those who tap maple trees for their sap to make the ever-so-precious maple syrup. As I said, there’s gold in the trees! I was inspired by a friend and fellow co-worker who gave me and all the staff where we work, an 8-ounce bottle of pure maple syrup that he made himself. After thanking him over and over again for the syrup, I began to ask how the process works to make it. “You have to be patient and dedicated,” he said. “It’s not for the weak-willed or the lazy, but the rewards outweigh the work.” 16 ounces of locally made maple syrup can run you over 15 dollars up here. Knowing that the process was not easy, I was intrigued and decided to try making syrup myself.
The freeze-thaw cycle in early Spring causes pressure changes in the tree that allows the sap to flow through the xylem, which are long thin hollow cells that connect to one another to form little conduits from the roots to the branches of the tree. Sparing you all the scientific details, the miracle of how the tree creates a sugary substance during this process results in an ever-so-slight sweet taste in the sap.
I went out and bought two, 5-gallon buckets with special lids to keep debris out and purchased two spiles, which are the “spigots” that fit into the drilled-out holes in the side of the trees. I was especially excited because of the two mature maple trees that stood on either side of my house from which I would draw the sap. My wife and I planted them when we first moved in over 15 years ago. I also purchased two stainless steel baking pans to pour the sap into during the evaporating process.
I collected about 20 gallons of sap and boiled it down to make about 2 quarts of maple syrup. I am sure it was rather humorous for my neighbors to watch me in the back yard stand next to a roaring fire with a metal grate over it and two baking pans full of tree sap boiling away. It must have been like watching “Cousin Eddie” from the National Lampoon movie, “Christmas Vacation”. Collectively, the process took about 18 hours over several days.
It gave me a great appreciation for those who make this “liquid gold” every spring. It was a challenge that seemed irresistible to me. Of course, ideas like making your own maple syrup seem exciting at first, but you quickly realize that doing so means hard work and lots of spare time, which is not very available. But it gave me a fun experience during a time of the year when the weather temps you and then lets you down. I got a kick out of serving pancakes to my grandchildren and pouring maple syrup over them that “Pappa” made. I will probably find myself standing over another roaring fire with pans of sap in front of me next year…or maybe not. Regardless, there is gold in the trees just waiting for someone to tap into it.