Maple tapping has begun and it’s complicated, arduous, physical labor in freezing cold weather. The “sap bush”, which is an area of trees that get tapped, needs specific equipment and so does the person doing the tapping. Each tree gets tapped by hand in a different place on its trunk each year and some of the tubing – called a dropline (in darker blue above) – is replaced. The sap line (in turquoise above) stays in place. Every year the tree gets a new tap and Tree Juice Maple Syrup has roughly 8,000 taps to replace. Tapping began this year on January 31st, 2021 in 15 degrees Fahrenheit and it continues this week even in a foot or two of snow, into which even the snow shoes are sinking.
“The tap network is a lot like the body,” says Jake Fairbairn part-owner of Tree Juice Maple Syrup. “The dropline is the capillary, the bigger arteries are the sap lines that lead to the bigger main lines (in black above). As you get more centralized you get bigger and bigger arteries”.
This year Tree Juice is using a new tap that is imbued with silver for its antibacterial properties. When you tap a maple its response is to heal quickly, but if the tree heals, the sap stops flowing. To keep the sap flowing, you have to prevent the tree from healing for at least eight weeks, which is about how long the sap flows before it becomes “ropey”. “It’s all about the bacteria load that can come back into the trees. The ebbs and flows happen with freezes and thaws. As that bacteria comes back into the tree, that’s really what causes the healing process. The tree senses the bacteria and tries to heal up that hole. So we do what we can to minimize that bacteria load. The first year tree is tapped, a cheaper tap is used. But in the second year, we will use the spout with silver”.
As a novice tapper, one should imagine the maple tree being like a huge cluster of straws through which the sap flows. Each year one tap goes partially into some of the straws in that tree. To allow the tree to heal properly and close over the hole after the season has finished, the following year the tap must be installed in a new part of the cluster of straws, at least an inch horizontally from last year’s hole, and up or down a foot. Because the drop line will get cut shorter next year, it’s best to go up a foot (and then across and down a foot the following year – essentially, you’re moving in a W formation so you do as little harm to the tree as possible). After a snow storm, the snow obscures the windward side of the tree, making it impossible to find the old holes without wiping off the bark.
If you’re new to tapping, you’re slow, and if you’re slow, your toes will slowly go numb along with your fingers because it’s difficult working while wearing gloves. Periodically, you’ll take the gloves off for more precise functioning, and after a while of doing this your fingers will cease to exist. Some members of the Tree Juice tapping group this year are wearing boots warm enough in which to comfortably climb Mount Everest, because one year co-founder Ryan Annetts got frostbite. In fact, if Mount Everest just happens to be on your bucket list, you should try maple tapping in the northeastern US in the dead of a snowstorm to prepare. If you’ve ever wondered by maple syrup is expensive, you should also try tapping.
Each year a new jacket is purchased by Jake that isn’t quite satisfactory. Into the jacket goes the equipment: a drill with a sanitary bit, a hammer, a bag of taps (called spouts), a two-handed tool to squeeze the tap into the drop line and a cutting tool to snip damaged drop lines. Every year storms blow trees onto the lines and these trees need to be cut up with a chainsaw to free the lines. Sometimes the lines have broken and need to be snipped, then re-joined together with a “union”. Experienced tappers have their equipment hanging from cords attached to their jackets in just the right places to allow easy access for quick tapping. You can’t wear a long coat because you’re moving your body over or under the sap lines and you have the equipment dangling. Quick tapping means you can keep moving and don’t freeze. “Once one part of you has frozen, it’s never going to warm up again, and then you’re done”, says Todd Pascarella, fellow 2020/21 tapper. Snow shoes are useful, but you have to be flexible enough to lift your leg over the drop lines while wearing them. You’re less nimble with snow shoes, but without them you’ll sink into the snow drifts that are two feet deep this week.
Once you’ve walked around the tree in snow shoes, bent double under the sap line, clutching all your swaying equipment to stop the drill bit from gashing your thigh for a third time, inspected the bark for the other holes (sometimes a foot above your shoulder) and decided where you should drill the new one (sometimes a foot above your shoulder), you need to keep the drill completely straight as you drill in, otherwise you’ll create a vacuum leak in the hole. Drill into the tree no more than 1.5 inches and straight out again in one swift motion. The wood that comes out of the tree should be white. Tap in the spout (anywhere from two to six times) until the sound of the hammer changes to a duller tone that is best sensed with practice.
Repeat until exhausted. Then finish the whole sap bush, because hard on the heels of tapping season comes boiling season.