Each of my aunts and uncles have a plaque in their home; a newspaper article, written by one of the small area papers featuring my grandfather and my dad. As part of the article is the one picture that captures everything my grandfather was. A smile playing across the face of a man obviously more comfortable behind a set of horses than answering questions. Our steady, solid foundation. It’s one of those photos that truly is worth a thousand words.
You see, the article talked about syrup season and the “old way” of doing things. With a pair of horses and a big tank to gather the syrup from buckets attached to the spouts in the trees. Buckets and big old Clydesdale horses. (Gentle giants. My heart still has a soft spot for them.) Some of my best memories are from sugar making season.
In the early years and depending on whether the weather was cooperating, we would take the horses out and go around to the taps and collect the sap. I have no idea how long it would take. Frankly, I didn’t care because even then, to me, there was nothing that rivaled being on a horse drawn sleigh. It was a peaceful, repetitive task which, even as a young girl, spoke to the introvert in me.
We would go out to the little camp with its dirt floor. The syrup would be boiled down and transported to the farm kitchen where my grandfather would fill the jars while my dad would seal and label it.
We had our “usual” customers and a large bulk order that went to my dad’s cousin’s grocery store each year. But it wasn’t about the business. Syrup season, much like Christmas, was about our family spending time together. By the end of the season, we were always sick of maple syrup and a little sick of each other. But that feeling never lasted longer than a week or two.
The old way was how it had always been done but when I was 13 or so, my dad and grandfather built a brand new sugar camp. A massive steel building with a vacuum hut to bring the sap through the pipelines to the storage tank in the camp. Once we moved to this “new” sugar camp, we had a kitchen right there. No need to transport. The syrup would come off the finishing pan and be pumped into the kitchen where my sister and I would bottle and label it all.
There was a rhythm to it all. Our school bus driver knew that if there was smoke coming out of the sugar camp that we were to be dropped off there rather than at home. And that’s where we would do our homework or work with our dad and grandfather until we were done for the day or it was getting too late.
Late in 1996, my grandfather passed away after a short battle with ALS. In 1997 entire family gathered around for the syrup season. It was comforting to be surrounded by aunts, uncles and cousins after such a loss and it was a wonderful tribute to our foundation. Then, in January of 1998, our area was hit with the worst ice storm ever recorded. We lost all the lines and a great deal of the trees that we tapped.
Trees, as it turns out, don’t hold up so well to a few inches of ice. The aftermath of the ice storm made it dangerous for the majority of people to work in forests and my dad wasn’t comfortable with anyone but him in the bush for years.
Our last season was the winter of 1997, we all worked to fill in the void left behind by my grandfather, continue the legacy, but it was short-lived. Perhaps Mother Nature knew. Perhaps the trees were damaged because she wanted us to avoid more heartache. Syrup season wasn’t ever going to be the same without him. Best to leave those memories to the trees and to us. Preserved.