We tap maple trees with a brace and bit. We carry five gallon buckets of sap fresh with the scent of spring, from trees to sugar camp. We split one foot lengths of maple, ash and ironwood and feed the fires until the hair on the back of our hands scorches. We boil the sap down to sweet, golden syrup. We share our days with people who return year after year, to walk the trails, to work and to talk.
Nights below freezing and days above forty degrees, when the ground is frozen first thing in the morning but melts to mud by noon, are ideal for sugaring. If the wind blows over the lake ice before it hits the trees, or if the temperature barely drops to thirty-two degrees at night, or if the sun doesn't shine, the sap may not run. But whether the sap runs or not, the sugar bush is a wonderful place to be.
In March, the woods are an etching in black and white, branches against snow. The downy woodpecker hunts bugs beneath the bark of dying trees, a sharp rat-a-tat-tat in the silence. As the snow melts and the mud deepens around the fire pits, the sap dripping into the cans sounds a steady plink, plink, plink. By April, V's od Canada geese fly overhead, looking for open water, and crimson cup fungi poke through the mulch of pale brown leaves. In
early May, the last drops of sap have turned yellow and the mud has dried. Wild leeks thrust their pungent leaves upward toward sunlight. We pull the taps from the trees, clean our equipment and say good bye.
Another season in the sugar bush has come and gone. Our lives return to normal. No more daily picnics, no more trying to do a week's work in a day and a half, no more long days in the woods with friends until summer has passed and winter has come again. Then, we know that it is almost time for the sugar bush - that we have almost, once again, reached the season of mud.
This essay first appeared in Otter Tail Review