Sugaring boils down to teamwork

Surely every rural community can claim retired farmers like our friend Rich. He buzzes about on back roads in a rusted Toyota with his rat terrier, Sparky, gazing out the window. A bee helmet and veil rest on the dusty back seat. Though almost 80, Rich still raises a few vegetables and gladioli for local farmers' markets and freely gives away the seconds. Routinely, Rich phones my husband merely to chat and check up on farm life.

This winter, the cold dawdled and the snow continued to fall. Rich called nightly, the exasperation of cabin fever registering in his voice. He asked if the sap was running, that first hint of spring. Repeatedly, Rich reminded my husband, John, that he'd boiled syrup in the past for a friend and knew how to run an evaporator. John assured Rich that he could be part of the process once the sap flowed.

At last, the mercury reached 32 degrees F., the sun shone, and rivers of melted snow rutted our driveway. John and I hauled out the sap buckets and loaded up the bobsled. Snow still topped our boots, but the trees had awakened. Sap flowed as John drilled holes and I tapped in spiles. That evening, John informed Rich that soon he could help boil.

I helped collect sap the next afternoon in between packing for a weekend conference. I flew off on a mild morning, fretting. While the weather forecast ensured a flawless flight, it also meant that John would be burdened with all the farm chores, from feeding baby goats to coping with sugaring. The plentiful sunshine would bring a heavy flow of sap.

And it did. Gallons and gallons of sweet sap gushed from the trees as the sun warmed the earth. Rich's Toyota rattled up to the sugarhouse, and Sparky jumped out.

Rich sent John off to the woods to haul in the sap, while he threw wood into the raging fire beneath the evaporator. The two worked in tandem all weekend.

Before leaving, I had left soups and stew in the freezer, food that John could easily warm up, but the pace of the weekend labors consumed his thoughts. Not until his stomach growled did he realize that even frozen food would take a while to heat on our wood cook stove.

"Weenies," Rich said. "Just the thing when sugaring. I brought some along. We can use some bread for buns." He dived into his Toyota.

In order to roast his hot dog, John cut sticks and raked out some coals from the fire beneath the evaporator. Rich shook his head when John offered him a roasting stick.

"Not me," Rich quipped. "I like mine boiled." He plopped his weenie into the evaporator! "Look at those currents! We've got it cooking." Sweet steam billowed about and filled the house with the scent of maple.

After their hot dogs reached perfection, they slapped them on slices of bread and munched. They enjoyed the first picnic of the year while celebrating the sticky season of sap and muddy roads.

The next evening, my plane flew in just ahead of a snowstorm. White once again blanketed the trees and earth. I washed jar after jar of freshly made syrup and stacked all 16 gallons in the pantry. A break in the weather renewed Rich's nightly phone calls.

"Sap running, yet?" he'd ask. "Let me know when you need me."

Even though I was home for the last big run, John called Rich and Sparky to fire the evaporator. His willing hands allowed John and me to collect sap buckets and tackle other farm work. I walked by the sugarhouse near the end of that day. Surrounded by steam, the two men chatted and tossed wood into the firebox while drawing off the last syrup of the season. Though decades separated their ages, their love of this spring ritual linked their hearts.

Bluebirds chortled in the goat pasture in the late evening as John carted in a crate of filled mason jars. Sugaring had ended. I was surprised when Rich called that evening.

"He wants to help me with the saw mill," John said, hanging up the phone. "We make a good team."

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