Spring is Here, and the Sap is Flowing!

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Hey gang, just thought I should check in with everyone and let you know what Deanna and I have been up to. As you are all aware from the last post, the winter race season was over, so now I’m sort of in between races and events, and focussing on training and also just trying to have a good time. With that in mind, I figured I’d write a quick post about a trip to a friend of ours’ sugar shack a little over a week ago. Deanna had never been to a sugar shack, and we decided that we’d go for the full-on authentic experience. It was made doubly a good idea by the fact that we were hosting Deanna’s sister Cheryl with us for the weekend! What exactly do I mean by the full-on authentic experience? Well, read on and find out. Here’s a tip though: there were no tourists, we had to hike in, and we were even put to work! To see pictures of our little visit to Mike Caldwell’s Ark, and his very own sugar shack, head over to the flickr folder chock full of maple syrupy goodness. Aftwerwards, click through to read the rest of my little story.

Before I get too far into my tale, allow me to apologize if I get any of the facts or figures wrong. We learned a lot about the process as we were there, and we did our best to remember all the exact details, but there may be some mistakes. Perhaps Mike will point them out to me later, but if not, just take our word for it, ok?

Mike is one of those guys? One of what guys you ask? Well, he gets ideas. And when these ideas percolate in his head, they have a way of happening. He’ll be the first to admit that he usually doesn’t know what he’s getting into, but he finds away. Witness the fact that he lives off the grid with Monique in an old barn that was completely renovated by him personally to become his center of operations for his personal business, as well as his dream home. Also, have a look at the paddocks with horses, a llama, and alpacas. Check out his grass roots races, etc. etc. He gets an idea, and he goes for it. I respect him for it, and am always intrigued to find out what is new at his property. Last year, he tapped a few trees the old fashioned way with taps and buckets, and made some tasty syrup. However, this year, he decided to ramp up production and try to sell some of his wares onsite.

This is where some of the stats come into play. At the moment, they have about 300 trees tapped on his property. These are all connected with feeder tubes into main collector lines. There are a couple of these lines which subsequently all carry the sap to his sugar shack. I believe the goal is to have up to 500 of his trees tapped and feeding his system. The best days for getting the sap flowing are warm days and cold nights. Unfortunately, we’ve been staying pretty cold all the time, but last weekend, conditions were ideal, so Mike was planning to go full ‘steam’ ahead. Pun intended.

The sap was running at about 25 litres per hour. To get syrup out of it, you need about 40 litres of sap for 1 liter of syrup. So in about 2 hours of flowing sap, you’d get approximately 1L of finished syrup. In the time that we were there, Mike only actually bottled a single liter of the sweet stuff, but the main reason for that is that he still wanted to work a bit on his system, and particularly the filtration. Another interesting stat for you all. When you have the pure sap, it is at about 3-4% sugar. In order to be syrup, you really want around 64% sugar. How do you get there? Well, you have to boil out as much liquid as you can. To do that, you use a big evaporator, which is exaclty what Mike had in his sugar shack. I ginormous evaporator that he bought off a guy that was getting out of the syrup game.

At the inlet side of Mike sugar shack were two 400L holding tanks, as well as a 1200L overflow tank, just in case he wasn’t able to keep production up. When we arrived, the two 400L tanks were pretty much full, and the evaporation process was well underway. We were showing at the critical time. Sap was flowing like mad, and the boiling process was going very well. Not only do you want 64% sugar, but ideally the sap needs to be boiling at about 7 degrees over the boiling temperature. As a side note, in order to get the maple taffy type syrup that is poured over snow, you need to boil it at about 34 degrees above boiling. How exactly do we boil the sap? Wood. Lots of wood. A roaring fire burns at one end of the evaporator, and a fan blows the heat through the system of tubes what the sap is fed through, allowing it to heat and boil off so that at the far end, we are left with syrup.

This wood is where we had to employ a little muscle. The stockpile was running low, so we headed out with Mike weilding a chainsaw, and us dragging a sled of sorts with a wood box mounted on two snowboards. Mike cut, we loaded the wood and took it back to the shack. Our reward (well actually our bribe before the work) was grilled cheese sandwiches cooked in the shack. Yum! All the while, we used an optical instrument to check the sugar content. When the time was finally right, we poured out a lot of about 12-15L of pure syrup. Yum! The final step was a 5-stage filtration system that Mike and I had to make last-minute modifications to when he realized it was connected backwards!

Once finally connected properly, we poured off a liter of the filtered product. Let me tell you, this stuff tasted amazing. However, Mike was unhappy with the lack of clarity, and decided that he wanted to filter the entire batch a 2nd time to clear out all the impurities. That would be done after we left for the day. I had sort of expected a huge amount of syrup, but after the first batch of 12-15L, I realized it would be a while. After all, we had just gone through about 600L of sap! All I know is that we can’t wait to get our hands on a bottle of our own syrup from Mike to use over the course of the next year. Aunt Jemima eat your heart out!

All in all, a fun afternoon that Deanna, her sister Cheryl and I spent out at the Ark. It’s always fun to get out in to the rural regions and enjoy a day in the clean air doing a bit of physical labour and enjoying the company of great people. No wonder I love being outdoors as much as I can. Quite a contrast to the bright lights of Vegas that I find myself in as I write this post. My window at the Mirage looks out over the insanity that is the Strip, and I only wish I was back enjoying the ‘pioneer’ life at Ark. Ahh well, all good things in moderation, right? I’ll leave things there, and give you a sneak peak at my next post, running in the canyons around Vegas in snow!! Till then, enjoy the great weather we’re having!

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