Like clockwork, every spring the icicles on the shed roof started dripping, the snow started crystallizing, the ice on the creek would begin to thaw and the days got warmer and we knew spring was on the way. Nights were still cold below freezing and days had the hint of warmth to them.
My dad had planted most of the trees on the property in Caledon East. He planted lots of pine trees but also lots of sugar maples. The soil there was quite sandy and I think he thought the pines would help prevent it from blowing away. When I grew up there I remember only seeing trees every where on the property. My siblings had the pleasure of helping to plant all the trees, as I was to young at the time.
On the weekend, when conditions were just right my dad would get the tractor out with the trailer and load the aluminum buckets, lids and spigots with a drill, and mallet. He would head down to the area that had the most sugar maples in the bush. He would set up the area with a large fire pit and pan for boiling the sap. He would feed large amounts of wood he had previously chopped into the firepit. The smoky smell filled the air.
Dad would go out and drill holes in the maple trees and then he would tap in the spigots and hang the bucket with the lid on hook. Then the sap would start to flow into the bucket, the drip, drip could be heard from the trees.
When I was about five I used to go with my dad when he was hanging the buckets. The younger smaller trees got one bucket but the bigger trees could take two or more. One tree I remember took four buckets. Every couple of days we would check to see how the level of sap was in the buckets. I liked it best when there was a thin skin of ice on the top of the bucket. I would put my lips to the edge of the bucket and tilt it slightly to drink the cool, clear sugary liquid. It tasted much like sugar water. When the buckets were close to full he would stoke the fire some more. He would load the buckets into the tractor’s trailer and collect all of the full ones.
It took about 40 buckets to get one gallon of maple syrup. I think dad had about 120 – 140 buckets. The sap was poured into the large pan and it was boiled continuously until it was boiled down into a thick, golden syrup. The last boil down was done by my mom on the kitchen stove until it was even thicker, darker syrup. Then she would pour the syrup into mason jars and seal it up. Some would go into the refrigerator to be eaten right away and the rest was stored in the cold storage cellar until we needed it.
I remember at lunch time dad would scoop out a pot with some sap in it and set it on the edge of the fire. He would throw in some hot dogs and boil them up. The taste was so good with hints of maple with bits of wood embers mixed in. Then he would throw some boiled syrup onto the snow to make maple taffy. I would get a stick and roll the taffy onto to it and then savour the chewy taffy in my mouth until it had melted away. The taste was so incredible! The syrup was very sweet but with a bit of woodsy, earthy taste and smell to it.
One year when I was about six or seven, my brother Dave and I were horsing around near the buckets with hot sap in them. I was leaning on a shovel and lost my balance and fell into the bucket. Luckily, it was only my right arm that went into the steaming bucket. I immediately pulled it out but the hot sap had soaked through my winter jacket and burned my arm. My dad had rushed over bundled me up and took me off to the hospital. They treated my arm with medicated cream and wrapped it in gauze bandages. I had to have it changed every night for several weeks. It left a mark for quite a while and was quite painful at first. I learned my lesson not to play around hot sap buckets.
Maple sap time lasted a short time maybe only a couple weeks towards the end of March. If the temperatures rose especially at night the sap would go up the tree and not come down again. It was a time I remembered with delicious pleasure for the taste, the smell and the sights of that thick rich, golden syrup.