Time to tap the sap

You probably know how good maple syrup tastes on pancakes and waffles. But have you ever eaten syrup Indian-style, poured on top of newly fallen snow? And did you ever wonder how the syrup got from the maple trees to your breakfast table? In New England, where we live, ``sugaring-off season'' is one of our favorite times of the year. From the end of February until early April, our woods fill up with people, squirrels, horses, and oxen - all of us busy tapping sugar-maple trees for syrup.

I suppose you could tap any kind of tree you wanted to, but you might not always like the results. Oak trees, I've heard, make a pretty bitter sap, one that smells like insect repellent. And pine trees are even worse - after all, they produce resin, which is used to make turpentine.

But with maple-sugar trees, you're talking sweet sap. In fact, there's nothing quite so refreshing as a cup of sap straight from the tree. It looks just like water, feels icy cold, and has a light, sugary taste all its own.

It's a real favorite with squirrels, too. They like to climb high up in the sugar maples, nip the tips off a couple of branches, and then sit back on a comfortable perch to catch the sweet drips in their mouths. Anyone who walks through a ``sugarbush,'' or grove of maple trees, during sugaring season has to be ready for a few unexpected showers, compliments of thirsty squirrels!

Years ago, American Indians tapped for syrup by slashing deep cuts in the sugar maples with their axes and then letting the sap drip into hollowed-out logs the size of canoes. They'd build a big fire, heat a bunch of rocks in the coals, and then toss the hot rocks into the logs to boil the sap right where it had fallen. Fortunately, there weren't too many Indians tapping for syrup in those days, and the trees had plenty of time to heal between seasons.

Nowadays we tap sugar maples by drilling small holes in the trunks, hammering in slender metal pipes called ``spiles,'' and then hanging buckets on the spiles to catch the sap that oozes through them. It's usually a good idea to cover the buckets, too, to keep out snow, rain - and curious beetles.

The sap only runs when the weather's right, with cold nights and warm, sunny days. Once spring starts and the maple buds begin to open into leaves, the trees add a bitter taste to the sap so caterpillars and other insects won't eat them. Because sugaring-off season is pretty short, we have to work steadily every day, driving to the sugarbushes to empty the buckets. Although one tree can produce a gallon of sap a day, it takes between 35 and 60 gallons to make one gallon of syrup!

Most people I know pour the sap into a collecting barrel mounted on a big, sturdy sled that's pulled through the snow by horses, oxen, or tractors. Each sled makes several trips a day to the sugarhouse, a small, rough-built cabin in the woods where the sap is poured into shallow pans and boiled over hot fires. The water eventually steams away, leaving thick amber-gold syrup behind.

That's when we really celebrate. Everyone scoops up a handful of new snow and pours the syrup on top. ``Jack wax'' was the name the European colonists gave to this toffeelike Indian treat. Today we'd probably call it ``awesome!''

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