RAINBOW LAKE - Addison Bickford knelt before his evaporator Monday afternoon and tossed pieces of split wood into its sweltering belly.
As the flames inside consumed the fuel, the sap up top responded with a roiling surge of bubbles and a dense cloud of sweet-scented steam.
Like most sugarers, Bickford makes a day out of maintaining his boiling sap. It can take more than an hour to boil a barrel of sap down into syrup, and if the evaporator runs dry, it could ruin the equipment.
Addison Bickford tests the density of his maple sap using a hydrometer. The denser the sap, the sweeter the flavor.
(Enterprise photo — Shaun Kittle)
Monitoring the boil also involves a steady stream of chopping wood and checking the hydrometer, which measures the density, and therefore the sweetness, of the boiling sap.
Sap began running around the beginning of April this year, a later start than most seasons. Bickford is holding out that there might be another run this weekend, but if there isn't, he might be done until next spring.
"I'm running about half what I was last year, but last year was a record year," Bickford said. "Who knows? If we get some cold nights, it could go on a little bit longer."
Bickford said he has been sugaring his entire life. His first endeavors consisted of boiling the sap he collected from 20 taps in his backyard in a pan on some cinder blocks. He has gradually expanded his operation to the 800 taps and countless miles of tubing he currently has on his 13-acre sugarbush.
Bickford's sugarbush of red and sugar maple trees yields about 100 gallons of maple syrup on a good year. There's a little more to it than drilling spiles into trees and hanging buckets from them, though. With sugaring, timing is everything.
The trees will heal about six weeks after a spile is inserted into them, so tapping too early could mean missing out on sap later in the season.
Uihlein Maple Forest director Mike Farrell said Bickford's syrup yield is on par with others throughout the region.
"It was a less-than-an-average year for most people, especially in the colder areas," Farrell said. "In the lower elevations, people did a little better. Up here in the Tri Lakes, it was a tough season. We didn't really get started until April, and we only had a couple of good weeks in April."
Like Bickford, Farrell said others are holding out to see if they can get another run in. Since the trees haven't started to bud yet, there is still hope, but warm temperatures last weekend deteriorated the sap quality, making it slimy and more difficult to process.
"We had great, incredible syrup up to Easter day, but after Easter day it took a turn for the worse for us," Farrell said.
Farrell said he stopped boiling earlier this week. The Uihlein Maple Project's sugarbush averaged about a quart of syrup per tap this year, which is about average for them. Farrell extends the season by tapping birch trees, which have just started their sap runs and will yield sap for the next week or so.
Overall, Farrell said the length of the sugaring season in the region is expanding. Climate change over the last 40 years has made the average spring season start earlier and end later. He said technological advancements have also made sap collecting more efficient.
"In general, there is an increase in syrup production in the region," Farrell said. "Typically with the old spouts, if you're just putting in an old spout with a bucket on it, it might last six to eight weeks before it dries up. Now we can go much longer since we have the new plastic spouts and vacuum tubing."
VIC director Brian McDonnell runs the interpretive maple sugaring program at the nature center. It is the second year for that program. Nearby Paul Smith's College is also the only college to offer a maple sugaring class.
"It was a short but eventful season for us," McDonnell said. "We had about 25 gallons in and it looked like it was over. All of the students went home for Easter, and I think the trees all knew that they left because the sap started flowing like crazy."
Saturday through Monday that weekend, McDonnell said he processed 500 gallons of sap and nearly doubled the season's syrup yield.
There are 300 taps on the VIC property and different tapping methods, including tubing, buckets and bags, which are used for interpretive walks and workshops that introduce people to sugaring.
The Paul Smith's College sugarbush is much larger than the VIC's operation and is geared toward marketing the maple syrup that's produced. Joshua Pierce runs the sugarbush with manager Skylar VanAuken.
Pierce said they added 1,000 taps to the sugarbush this year, bringing the total taps up to 2,500. Those taps have produced 900 gallons of syrup so far, up from 740 gallons last year, and Pierce said they will continue boiling.
"We're making a good year out of a poorer year, as far as the weather goes," Pierce said. "It's hard to tell when we'll stop boiling. We might go for another week, but that's really up to Mother Nature."
The Wild Center's Tupper Tapper program is up to 120 gallons of syrup from 910 taps placed throughout the community. Last year, the program had 560 taps that yielded 120 gallons of syrup.
"We're going to boil again on Friday, and just see where that takes us," said The Wild Center sugar maker Andrew Pape. "We'll just play it by ear until the sap stops flowing."
Contact Shaun Kittle at 891-2600 ext. 25 or firstname.lastname@example.org.