Kurt Vonnegut used to say that there were actually six seasons in the year: winter, spring, summer, and fall…and “locking” and “unlocking.”
“Locking,” Vonnegut said, comes between fall and winter, when leaf-season is over and the world is hunkering down but real winter has yet to arrive. “Unlocking” comes at the end of the winter, when the world has begun to thaw, but you still haven’t reached spring.
These two seasons tend to be bi-polar and confusing.
But if you live in the northern United States and have access to some woods, there’s a fun thing you can do with the “unlocking” season…
Make maple syrup!
That’s what I did when I was a kid.
The first thing you need to make maple syrup is some stuff -- buckets, taps, hooks, a drill, a hammer, and a sap collection tank. A pickup truck helps, too.
Buckets are actually an old-fashioned and inefficient way to collect sap (you'll see why). These days, serious 'sugaring' operations use vacuum tubes that whoosh sap straight from the trees to the sugar house. But you can still get tin buckets secondhand from specialty dealers. Ours are from Canada.
Our taps are the old-fashioned kind, too. The ones you use with vacuum tubes are thinner and made of plastic.
Sugar maples are best, because their sap has the highest sugar-to-water ratio. But you can tap reds, blacks, and other kinds of maples, too. Just don't go drilling any oaks or pines.
The time of year you tap the trees, by the way, depends on where you are. You need warm days (above freezing) and cold nights, because you can only get sap when it's 'running' -- up the tree during the day and down to the roots at night. In Connecticut and similar latitudes, sugaring season usually starts in late February. In Vermont, it's March. In Canada, April. Canada is where they make most of the world's syrup, by the way. There's a long season up there, with hot days and frigid nights.
Once you find a good-looking spot on a good-looking tree, start drilling. You want to bore two-and-a-half inches in. The wood's tough. You're going to have to lean into that drill.
The wood you drill should be yellow and fleshy, not flaky and brown. If it's above freezing, and the sap is running, the wood will be wet, too.
The day we tapped our trees, in late February, the sap had just started running. So once we had our hole, we hurried to slip in the tap.
Slip a bucket hook around the tap, slide it into the drill hole, and then tap it in with the hammer (tap--don't smash! You just want to seal the hole, not split the tree.) If the sap's running, you'll see it pool in the mouth of the tap immediately.
And even that's puny! A few years ago, we visited the third-largest sugaring operation in Vermont. It's run by a family near Putney. They have 400 acres of maple trees, all connected with vacuum hoses running into a central sugar house. On days when the sap is running, it sprays into the sugar house tanks like water from a New York fire hydrant.
Once you've finished tapping your trees, go find something else to do for a while -- preferably overnight. Sap doesn't pour out of trees. It drips. And filling those buckets will take at least a day.
This one's lame, but the sap is pure and clear -- exactly as it should be. (If the sap in your buckets is yellow or cloudy, dump it. It has probably spoiled.)
By the way, look closely at this picture. See the tiny black dots? They're bugs. One thing I noticed while tromping from tree to tree a few years ago is that these bugs sometimes gather on the snow. Anyone know what the bugs are? How do they not freeze to death?
When I was a kid, a neighbour in Vermont used to let me ride around with him on a horse-drawn sleigh while he collected buckets and dumped them into a mobile tank. These days, we do it with feet and a Toyota Tacoma. (The vacuum-tube folks don't have to do it at all.)
Inside the sugar house is a big contraption like this, which is called an evaporator. Many of them, like this one in Maine, are wood-fired.
Real sugar houses, like this one in Ira, Vermont, are marvellous places. The wood smoke and sap steam combine to create one of the most fabulous smells you can imagine. And thanks to the fire they're toasty warm, even on the coldest nights.
Alas, in the Blodget family, we don't have a real sugar house. Or evaporator. We just have a kitchen stove. And spaghetti pots!
So if you want to make enough syrup to cover a year's worth of family pancakes, that's a lot of tromping and a lot of boiling.
Eventually, though, after hours and hours of boiling (~10, if memory serves), that big orange vat of sap we collected earlier boils down to something like this. It's 1/43rd of the amount of liquid we started with.
It turns out that 'syrup' has to have a very specific sugar content. Too little, and it will spoil and deteriorate. Too much, and it will crystalize. One way of determining whether you've reached the right sugar level is by taking careful temperature readings.
'Syrup' boils at 7.2 degrees above the temperature at which water boils. At sea level, water boils at 212 degrees, so syrup would boil at 219 degrees. We're not at sea level, though. We're at about 1,000 feet. So syrup boils at a higher temperature...
Um, no. Wait. Water boils at LOWER temperatures at higher altitudes, not higher temperatures. And that means we've over-boiled. So it's back to the trees to get more sap...
It tastes so sublime at this point that you'll be tempted to bake up some waffles and drown them immediately. But there's one step left. Filtering.
Unfiltered syrup is cloudy with particles. To fix that, you can dump it into the equivalent of a huge coffee filter... or you can just wait a while.
We left our syrup sitting on our porch for a week. And all those particles settled to the bottom. Then we decanted it.
Making your own syrup isn't exactly the most efficient or 'green' process in the world. Between equipment, gas, propane, and time, you'd be vastly better off driving down to the supermarket and grabbing a gallon or two.
But it's nice to be able to do something productive during that weird season between winter and spring.
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