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Spring plus sap equals syrup

Larry Zea drains off a new batch of syrup as Bob Wallner checks the fire. Tom Adams is the third member of this group of maple syrup makers.1 / 3
Jeff Wiebe adds another bucket of sap to the vat brought to his home near Hines from Indiana where it had been used by his father-in-law. Wiebe tapped 45 maples this year.2 / 3
Steve Bechtold, left, holds the strainer as Pat Kovar adds sap to the batch being cooked down. This summer, Kovar plans to enclose the set-up.3 / 3

BLACKDUCK - "For lo, the winter is past" -- but it's not the voice of the turtle that is heard in the land. Instead, it was the sound of sap bubbling over wood fired of spiles now coming out of the trees, and the promise of maple syrup to come.

The arrival of spring meant longer hours for a Bemidji attorney, a Cass Lake school teacher, a cattleman and other as well as for the women who alternately either help, or put up with, the advent of the sugar season.

The ritual is little changed from years ago, though metal spiles now replace the hand-made wooden spigots carefully carved over the years. Maple trees, variously identified as hard, red or sugar maples, are usually tapped with a common 7/16 drill bit, cut at a slight upward angle, the metal spile or spigot tapped in place and a bucket or bag hung in place to collect the draining sap.

In some cases, a few trees are tapped to collect sap to be made into syrup for use by the family or a few lucky friends. Several local syrup makers will hunt from three to four or five dozen trees, or in some cases, larger, older maples, which are tapped with two or three spigots at a time.

Rich Ferdig says he started pulling spigots from his trees over the weekend, and that the sap collected yielded enough for about 14 gallons of syrup. He started April 2 and says the season was "short, but good."

The season ends when nights no longer dip below the freezing mark and daytime temperatures are warm enough for the sam to run as it did abundantly this year. Good weather or bad, while the sap is running, it's and eight or nine hour day, ever day. Ferdig works with Bob Matheny to get it all done.

Ken Michalicek tapped 300 maples this year, which is down from approximately 450 a year ago. He finished pulling them with the help of his grandsons Monday. He then became the process of cooking it down, 70 to 80 gallons of sap at a time. (The sample he offered for a taste was full of that real maple syrup flavor enjoyed by so many for so long.)

Once collected, the sap goes through cooking down process. The long-time idea was that it took 40 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup and about 80 gallons to make maple sugar candy. This year, hydrometers are used instead of the old "watch it drip from a spoon to know when it's ready" method of long-standing practice.

On the side, Michalicek wondered about the means Native Americans may have used to make syrup before the availability of metal pots for cooking. He speculated on the suggestion voiced by some that logs were hollowed out, the sap collected in it and then cooked down by heated rocks being tossed in until the syrup was formed.

"It had to have taken a lot of rocks, if that's how they did it," Michalicek said.

Michalicek added that the idea to his discussion about the equipment he uses, including the pre-heater, which warms the sap before putting it into the vat for cooking down, and the constant effort to keep equipment clean and the product pure.

Jeff Wiebe worked his usual 40-45 trees again this year, and varying numbers of trees and taps were reported by others. Wiebe cooks his sap in a vat from his father-in-law's home, brought here from Indiana.

One interesting note was the willingness of those making syrup to promote visits to others gathering sap this spring.

That was true with Larry Zea and his partners Bob Wallmer and Tom Adams. They do their cooking out near Wallmer's home on Pimush Lake. It was true again when we visited with Pat Kovar, who was being helped as well as showing the how-to-do-it to Steve Bechtold. Sam Christiansen and many others were added to the list of maple enthusiasts still to be contacted.

No one quoted prices, but most suggested something around $60 per gallon for this year's product. Prices may be buoyed by the shortage of syrup in the New England states and Quebec. The Canadian province traditionally is a major supplier to U.S. markets, but a shortage there is affecting prices generally.

In this area, some producers will offer a portion of their output for sale, but most use it themselves or as gifts to family and friends.