The folks at South Hill Forest Products wrapped up our first maple syrup boil of the season recently. We use wood fires to reduce our maple sap to syrup, a rustic method that is as time- and labor-intensive as it is rewarding. During our boils, students work around the clock. Students continuously chop wood, add sap to the boiling pans, and tend to the fires until the boil is complete.
Here's one student's account of our most recent boil:
By Ryan Price
Are you chopping?
Chop. Stir. Add Sap. Repeat.
Did you miss a piece of wood? Try to chop it again. It needs to be smaller.
Don’t stop pedaling the old air mattress pumps used as billows to blow air into the fires either. If the fires aren’t shooting flames out of their smoke stacks, they aren’t hot enough. Add more wood and more importantly add more air to the scorching wood. Singe the hair off your arms and hands as you wave old blue foam butt pads in front of the fire’s flames.
Taste the sap before you add it to the warming pan. You don’t want to ruin the batch. Also, don’t forget to check your boiling pan’s levels, too low and the sap could burn, too high and the sap won’t be boiling. Skim the foam off the top too. Don’t be afraid to taste it either.
Sip some coffee. Your shift doesn’t end till 3 a.m. and it’s only 10. Your speaker and phone died about two hours ago. Luckily, your head lamp light still works, even though the moon and fires light the forest. Your classmates hum campfires songs. Take a break for a second, drink some water. Chop wood while you wait for your relief to show up.
Go home that night. Fall asleep with ash smeared across your face. Smoke is your new deodorant of choice. Consider taking a shower, but don’t because you know you’ll cry once you wash away the dirt. Plus, in 8 hours after sitting through your classes, you’re going to be back in the sugar bush chopping wood and boiling more sap.
In teams of 4 or greater students worked 24/7 doing this. Students started boiling sap Monday, February 26 at 8 am and finished the outdoor portion of the boil Thursday afternoon. Working in a record time students boiled roughly 500 gallons of sap.
As the sap collected grew smaller and smaller so did the fires. The sap, which had turned into syrup, simmered in the pans and gained a higher and higher sugar concentration. Once they were sugary enough the pans were removed from the fire leaving behind a pile of burning ash with nothing to heat.