Sugar Bush Conundrum

It’s another rainy day, the woods are resounding with the sound of water dripping, the stream is rushing by and I can hear kids getting excited about something over in the direction of the farm.

It’s very peaceful where I am right now, holding a pair of pliers in one hand, a spread sheet in the other. I’m standing on the wet leaves and bark mulch that cover Fuzzy’s Forest Footpath, which runs along the side of the spawning channel from the main dining hall to the cabins. Why the pliers in the woods? Well, I lost my spiel puller, or rather forgot where I stashed it, and the spiel or tap I am facing is being very reluctant to leave the tree it inhabits. The other trees on Fuzzy’s line gave up their spiels with a minimum of fuss, needing only for me to grip them firmly with my fingers and pull. Sometimes the spiel will almost fall out, sometimes they are a little stiff and sometimes, like this one, they feel welded in place.

I grip the head of the spiel and try rotating it left and right, the spiels are made of plastic so I need to be careful so I do not bend, warp or crack the head. It turns very slowly then suddenly breaks free, and I’m able to pull it from the tree with my fingers. There is a crusty ring of gunk around the base of the head where it was seated in the tap hole and there are more crusty bits around the intake end that sits inside the tree.

I have noticed this thing with how tight the spiels are seated before and never really questioned it, but as each year passes and I become more tuned to the process, I am starting to look deeper to find answers to some of these more obscure questions. I mean they put the effort into making and marketing the Spiel Puller for a reason, so it can’t be that the stiff, difficult ones are the oddballs, maybe the loose ones are the anomaly. The crusty bits are also part of the questions I pose myself, it’s not like every tight spiel has the crusties or the crusties are associated only with the tight spiels. I check down on the tag attached to the hose for the tree number and cross reference with my Data sheet.

Tree #9, named “Luke’s Tree” by the students from Braemar Elementary who tapped it that day. It was tapped of Jan 31st, about the end of the time line for this tap line. The earliest, #6 was tapped December 20th and last, #10 was tapped the next day. (Click here for our Sugar Bush results for this season, separated by school and tree)

So, what is the big deal, why am I standing in the middle of the forest in the rain staring at a bit of plastic and a spread sheet? Why bother about it?

Well I’m pretty much self-taught with this, which means I’m making mistakes and learning from them as I go. I am beginning to feel sheepish because it is dawning on me I made a very, very basic mistake. It was the drill bit.

A craftsman never blames his tools, and a leader never blames his crew. In this case I never even thought about how a dull drill bit and someone who inexperienced with drills could affect my yield so drastically. You see this is not really about a sticky spiel, the spiel is a clue, this is about a failed harvest on this tap line.

I tapped the same five trees on Fuzzy’s last year and between mid-February and early May I collected almost 80 litres of sap off this tap line. It is now early April and I have this year collected just over 25 litres, so what happened?

Last year was an exceptional harvest at 700 litres of sap collected on the property. That was from 25 trees, this year I only tapped 20 trees and collected just over 220 litres. I did not tap the trees around the long house this year, and those were the most productive last year. Last year we had snow pack on the ground well into March, this year we had snow on the ground for maybe two week. I think that cold winter had something to do with last year’s harvest. Last year I was running an average of 28 litres per tree, the year before 5.3 litres, this year 11 litres per tree. Fuzzy’s line, 5liters per tree, on par with my 2015-2016 average. What makes it more worrisome to me is that 17 of the 25 litres came from one tree, the one I am at now, #9, the one with the sticky spiel. That leaves 2 litres per tree over three months, for the other 4 something is not right. I had been keeping an eye on it as I collected and kept expecting a “gush”. It never came. I thought maybe the trees were somehow over tapped from previous years, that there was some sort of fatigue or something? They had plenty of foliage over the summer and it is still too soon to see if they are starting to bud like all the other maples on the line, but I highly doubt that this is the case. What is dawning on me now is a far more likely explanation.

You see, Luke’s Tree, old #9, was tapped with a group that had a counsellor who had used a drill before. This is important because it is the teenage counsellors who drill the hole for the spiel. When she drilled the tree, it was done with confidence and went very quickly, she got the drill up to speed and leaned right into working the bit in and out the dislodge the shavings. It was over in less than five seconds. The other trees were drilled with counsellors who were more hesitant, almost as if they were trying to spare the tree and do it as gently as possible, it would take 20 to 30 seconds to drill the two inches into the tree. So, what happens when you have a dull drill bit and have it spinning at high revolutions inside a piece of living wood? Friction heat, I remember the shavings being not just warm but steaming, almost hot.

I think we glazed the inside of the hole. I think the drill bit got too hot and that it had time to cauterise the bore hole, like the old movies where they jab a hot poker into a wound to stop the bleeding. I’m looking at the crusty bits on the spiel in my hand, that is organic growth, I peer into the hole in the tree, little bits of scabby material are forming and the wood still looks moist. I check the other holes, dry looking but with a bit of the scabby growth starting along the lip. I check the trees for last year’s hole, all filled in, resembling a belly button. I am going to keep an eye on these trees to be sure they are healing, if not maybe I can fashion a plug out of a cork to keep insects and infection out.

So, I am off to buy a brand-new drill bit for next year that will only be used for the sugar bush project, I am also going to add a line in the lesson stressing the importance of keeping the drilling time to a minimum while still staying safe.

As for the 220 liters of sap? Some has already been used but the bulk of it is in the freezer. I’m saving a few kilos for next year to start the program with some sap for the kids to sample. We are using some reduced sap for our 49th Annual Open House for an iced maple tea for those who sign up for the forest walk and wish to donate. I will also be using some for our River Feast, a fundraising event for the Cheakamus Foundation, as a base for a martini. And we will be using it in our scones, bannock and banana pancakes.

Lots of ways to enjoy!

Executive Chef, Wade Rowland

Cheakamus Centre 

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