Well, I can’t wait any more; I have started my spring activities. Last weekend, I took the family out into the woods to start scouting for turkey season. We had to walk on the snowmobile trail, because not everyone in the family has snowshoes. We got wet feet, but it was great to get outside. In our travels, we did not see any turkeys wandering around, but we saw our first sandhill crane of the season.
It was standing in the one bare spot of ground in a roadside pasture. As we wound through the open roads of the county forest, I noticed we were close to my buddy Bob’s place. He had said he would be cooking sap on Sunday; when I told my wife that, she said we should drop by and see if they were outside. Sure enough, there was a group of folks with buckets and snowshoes standing in the driveway.
Tapping maple trees, or sugaring, is a popular pastime for many folks, an important way of life or means of income for others. I am not an expert on the process, but basically, when the weather conditions are just right, you hammer a spout (called a spile) into a maple tree. As the weather warms in the daytime and cools at night, sap travels up and down between the tree’s roots and crown inside the innermost layers of bark. The spile directs a portion of that sap into a pail or jug. The sap has high water content, but also contains sugars and nutrients. You cook the sap to evaporate the water out and the remaining product is your syrup. It takes a lot of sap; often, 40 gallons of sap is necessary to make a single gallon of syrup.
The sap collection process, when done properly, does not harm the tree, nor does the volume of sap removed during the sugaring season. It is my understanding that only 10 percent of the tree’s reserves are removed in the process, which is less than what it drops in colorful leaves in autumn. Humans are not the only woodland creatures that crave the sugars in the sap. Squirrels, porcupines and a kind of woodpecker known as the sapsucker are all known to carve bark off of maple trees to access the sap underneath. This period of time, when the sap moves in high quantity up and down the tree, is generally limited to springtime, when temperatures move above and below freezing in a 24-hour period. Last year, we had little or no spring to speak of; it went straight to summer, and from what folks told me, we had the worst sap season in years. Right now, although it is starting pretty late, the season looks to be very good, from what I am told.
As I stood by Bob’s sugar house this weekend, sipping a cup of maple sap coffee, watching his sap boil, I really came to understand and appreciate the importance of sugaring. Sure, it gives you delicious syrup. It also gets you outside and it makes you pay attention to the growing season in relation to the weather, what we refer to as phenology. You have to know what the weather is doing and how the trees are going to respond. Like hunting, fishing, rice collecting, trapping, gathering mushrooms and other Northwoods activities, sugaring is a way to connect with nature and participate in the changing of the seasons.
Regardless of the snow, some processes can’t be stopped. The crane I saw and the oriole I heard singing in my oak tree are driven by forces scheduled by hours of daylight, snow or no snow. Turkeys will gobble, grouse will drum and woodcock will do their unusual song and flight. Spring is here, snow or no snow; it just may take a little improvisation by people and wildlife to deal with the unusual weather.
Jeremy Holtz is a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin DNR and writes a weekly column in the Star Journal. To contact him, call (715) 365-8999.