Going With the Flow
By Deborah Geigis Berry
Vermont maple sugarmakers help Cub Scouts experience the centuries-old process that turns watery sap to savory syrup.
Friday night, a storm blankets the central Vermont town of Barre with 16 inches of snow. But the last Saturday in March dawns crisp and clear, with snow spread around a grove of maple trees like a downy white comforter. Boots crunching in the snow punctuate the frosty air as members of Barre Town's Cub Scout Pack 717 gather round a tree with a thick trunk.
In these woods, where trees long outlive those who plant them, the world of GameBoys, DVD players, and computers is easily forgotten. The pack's visit to a maple farm has been postponed for weeks due to stormy weather, but now the Cub Scouts are preparing to take part in a traditional Vermont rite of spring.
40 gallons of sap
"Anybody want to try drilling the old-fashioned way?" asks Rick Sanborn of Bluebird Ridge Tree Farm, whose maple grove stands on a 1,500-foot-high ridge with panoramic views of the state's gentle peaks.
Sanborn helps Augustus Dawson, 10, position a hand drill in the trunk of a century-old tree. As the Cub Scout turns the drill, a clear, watery sap runs from the hole.
"Now, push in the spigot," Sanborn says. Augustus wiggles the tap into the tree and hangs a metal bucket beneath it to catch every precious drop.
"It takes 40 gallons of sap to make just one gallon of syrup," Sanborn tells the red-cheeked boys.
Two more Cub Scouts install taps in the same tree. Then the boys, adult leaders, parents, siblings, and friends trudge waist-deep in snow to a second maple.
Sanborn produces a power drill with a titanium bit. "This is the new way to tap trees," he announces as he guides the drill through the bark. Within seconds, sap starts running.
"I wish I could have done it that way," laments Augustus, rubbing his cranking arm.
"But the old way's more fun," counters Sanborn with a smile.
The affable sugarmaker then asks if any of his young helpers want to taste the sap. Encouraged by cheers, Corey Day, 11, crouches under the tap and opens his mouth wide.
"What's it like?" someone shouts.
"It's like water," Corey says, licking his lips. "Just a little sweeter." After a few other boys, including Mark Sabens and Michael Reno, sample Mother Nature's drinking fountain, Sanborn holds up a finger in the crisp, quiet air, summoning silence.
"Hear that?" Ping, ping, ping. The sound of sap dripping into metal buckets fills the serene woods like a hopeful drumbeat. It means red-breasted robins, fields full of wildflowers, and rushing streams should emerge in the next few weeks.
Making the grade
Little has changed about the time-honored Native American custom of harvesting syrup from hearty maples. Mother Nature is still the arbiter of when the sugaring season begins and how long it lasts.
For the sap to run, a string of freezing nights followed by warm days is key. No one knows when, or for how long, those conditions will occur; sugarmakers literally must go with the flow. In 2000, Sanborn wrapped up the sugaring operation on March 22. In 2001, the action didn't start until March 25; and when Pack 717 arrives, the season is just six days old.
During their three-hour visit, the Cub Scouts learn that the metamorphosis from watery sap to savory syrup takes place in the sugarhouse, a short walk from the maple grove.
As the boys follow Sanborn through the wintry landscape, they learn that sugar production is an intense time, with little sleep for the sugarmaker and his crew. After tapping the trees, the team has to rush the sap to the sugarhouse to begin the boiling process.
The source of syrup
The Cub Scouts crowd into the sugarhouse, where icicles hang from outside windows. "I didn't know syrup came from trees," admits Matthew Dawson, 9. "I thought it came from a machine."
A machine does play a major role in the process, however. The boys encircle an oil-fired evaporator that features twisted tubes, pressure valves, and partitioned trays. It starts heating the sap, and sweet steam soon rises toward an opening in the roof.
"All it takes is heat to make syrup," Sanborn explains, as the sap starts flowing through the trays. "If it says 'pure Vermont syrup' on the bottle, that's all it contains100 percent pure syrup, no coloring or additives."
Vermont is America's top maple syrup producer, making 275,000-plus gallons in 2001. But even though hundreds of sugarmakers operate in the rolling hills of the Green Mountain State, most of the Cub Scouts have never seen the process.
"Unless you grow up on a farm, you're often not familiar with sugaring," says Cubmaster Stuart Guy, whose boyhood memories include watching his grandmother boil sap on her stove.
"We live in a more urban society," echoes Sanborn. "Most Vermont kids haven't even had sugar-on-snow [a taste treat the Cub Scouts will sample at day's end]."
While the sap boils for an hour, the boys play outside in the snow. Then Sanborn calls them together.
"Can someone tell me what grade this is?" he asks, holding up a bottle of fresh-made syrup in the sunlight.
The boys compare the bottle's contents to samples of fancy (the lightest syrup), Grade A medium, Grade A dark, and Grade B (the darkest). "Looks 'fancy' to me," concludes Corey Day's pal Anthony Sweet, 11.
Finally, it's time for the Cub Scouts to earn their sweet rewards.
"I need you to fill these with snow and level off the tops," says Shirley Reno, the pack's committee chairman, as she hands her crew rectangular aluminum pans.
In the meantime, Sanborn heats some fresh-boiled syrup on the stove until it thickens into a caramel-like consistency. He then takes it outdoors for an impromptu winter picnic.
"Goody!" a Cub Scout yells.
Poured onto fresh snow, the syrup instantly thickens into a taffy-like confection. "Dig inbut don't eat the snow," Sanborn says. "It tastes better that way."
The boys twirl their forks around the caramel and gobble it in the open air. Sanborn then drips the thickened syrup over doughnuts and, as is tradition, serves them with pickles to cut the sweetness.
The Cub Scouts embark on an eating contest, with the aptly named Anthony Sweet taking the lead, consuming two pans of sugar-on-snow, two pickles, and two doughnuts.
As the sun recedes, there's even one more treat in storefresh-made maple candy, which Sanborn concocts by continuing to heat the syrup on his stove, then pouring it into leaf-shaped molds.
As the banquet of sweets continues, Webelos Scout Corey Day pauses for a comment. "I thought drilling for sap was the most fun," he says, reaching for a piece of candy. "But I was wrongit's eating."
Freelance writer Deborah Geigis Berry lives in Windsor, Conn.
March-April 2002 Table of Contents
Copyright © 2002 by the Boy Scouts of America. All rights thereunder reserved; anything appearing in Scouting magazine or on its Web site may not be reprinted either wholly or in part without written permission. Because of freedom given authors, opinions may not reflect official concurrence.