The trees had not been tapped for over 50 years. I had never done it. No one had done it where I grew up. There was no such thing as tapping trees in Northern Manitoba and anywhere else in Manitoba, as far as that goes.
I had visited a Sugar bush to buy Maple syrup a few times since I moved to southwestern Ontario but never toured the bush itself. I don’t know why the sugar sap ran here and not elsewhere. I had never given it a thought. After I had seen my first black squirrel, I learned not to be surprised on the hemispheric shifts in flora and fauna from where I was from and my new home in the southernmost part of Canada.
25 years pass. The idea floats here and there. Talked about, mentioned in passing and forgotten. I can’t say for sure how it found a foothold. From where, what or whom came the inspiration. Maybe it was a dream or something other whispering in my ear at night.
Someone helped to nudge the notion along through the ether and into this world. All I know is that one day I knew that I was going to do it and I set about converting idea into action - dream into reality.
I ask my in-laws, the elders in the family, for direction. My father in law shows me the trees he had planted with his grandmother when he was a little boy.
Five beautiful hard sugar maples that by his estimation must be around 70 years old, his mother had tapped those trees but he had never done it on his own. My mother in law, as well, remembers tapping trees as a child but had never done it when she grew up.
My wife told me she can remember being a little girl looking up at her grandmother as she went about tapping the trees. She remembers her grandmother’s kitchen filled with steam as the final water was boiled from the sugar and she remembers her grandmother holding out a spoon with a touch of liquid magic for her tongue.
That was the last memory.
I begin my research online, watching videos on youtube and tracking which one I felt was most helpful. When my in-laws are visiting one day I show them and they smile at the memories. “It looks simple enough,” I say. And they smile at that.
I visit a local sugar bush and ask if they have spiles, the metal funnel shaped spigots that you tap into the tree to drain the sap into the buckets. “We have plenty sitting in a bucket in a storage shed. We don’t do it like that anymore, these days we all use plastic tubing,” he says.
The modern sugar bush is no longer a group of trees with individual spiles and buckets. The trees are tapped with plastic spigots that are connected to a series of tubes that run the sap from a number of trees and drain into a barrel. Some have it so automated that it drains into the barrel, into a filter, then right into a boiler that drips out syrup.
I am only going to tap a couple of trees, I tell him. I buy a dozen spigots, hooks, buckets and covers for 20 bucks. I am pretty sure that we both feel that we kind of ripped off the other guy.
When I get back, I share that I have the tools to get started. The next big part is to be sure that I have the right bit for the hand drill to make the holes for the spile.
My father in law takes that task, he asks me to leave a spile with him and he will figure it out. He’s a carpenter, I’m a writer and I am happy to have him figure that out.
He calls me up about an hour later. He shows me a block of wood with a spigot sitting snugly inside. He has it marked with a piece of tape. “You have to go this deep, but no further,” he tells me. He is serious about this.
My father in law who is jovial at the best and worst of times is serious about business when it comes to his trade as a carpenter and as one who has lived much of his life dependent of Mother Earth to provide, he is serious about harvesting.
I take my granddaughter with me and we go to tap the first tree. I offer tobacco to the tree and to the Creator. I begin to crank the drill and the bit moves easily through the bark and the first layer of flesh but I struggle when I enter the meat of the tree. They don’t call it hard Maple for nothing.
I pause, reset my feet and hands and then begin to crank again. I wobble a bit but I keep going until I hit my mark.The clear liquid begins to leak out the hole. Excellent.
I take the spigot and I tap, tap, tap and then I see a drop of liquid come out the end. That’s it. I put the hook on the spigot and hang up my pail. We hear the tinny plink as the first lonely drop hits the bottom of the pail.
I look at my granddaughter and say, “looks like we are in business, my girl.” She beams her big warm smile.
We do it three more times, two spigots on two trees in total. I am getting weaker as I go along and truth be told, I start to hurry. The last couple holes require more stopping, more resetting of the feet and hands. When I tap these spigots in, they don’t fit snugly.
I know right away that this is going to be a problem. My only comfort is that I don’t know what I’m doing right so there’s a chance, that I don’t know what I am doing wrong.
As I prepare the report for my wife, I realize that I have just made a partnership with the trees and I have no idea what that means and how long it will last. For some reason I thought that I could give it a go, see what happened and if it didn’t work out; I could just stop.
I tell my partner, “I’ve just started a ceremony in which I don’t know what will happen and I don’t know how or when it will end. As soon as I put my tobacco down and put holes in those trees, I made a commitment to honor that ceremony until the sap is finished running. I didn’t realize that until it was done.”
I don’t sleep well. I’m bothered by the fact that the last two holes I drilled were obviously too big, the early spring weather echoes my unease. The winds blow hard and steady all night long.