We arrive at Tug Hill early on a Sunday afternoon in late March. Snow! Only a foot and a half covers the hilly terrain, but it suggests that there’s probably still snow 30 miles further, at the northern New York woods where my husband, Steve Lehman, and I are headed. We’re delighted. Our annual trek from our home in Minnesota to the foothills of the Adirondacks looks promising. If the weather cooperates, we’ll find the golden elixir we seek every year at this time: maple syrup. [Photo 1]

As we pull into Lowville, New York, which is about 15 miles from our property, we’re again reassured, this time by its main street. The coffee shop (yes, it even has espresso!), book store, candy shop and other businesses have survived another year, a very good sign for this region with high unemployment and few prospects. My father-in-law grew up on a farm in the area during more prosperous times. The Lehman homestead is no longer in operation, and many of the family members left the region years ago. But they retained 30 acres of maple trees for one purpose: to carry on the tradition of sugaring—making maple syrup—that was started by my father-in-law’s ancestors in the 1830s.

The poor economy aside, this region remains rich in one resource, maple trees. New York is the second largest maple syrup-producing state in the U.S. During spring, it seems nearly everyone gets in on making maple syrup, called “sugaring.” Even if they don’t have a woods of maple trees, called a “sugar bush,” locals will tap any maple tree on their property. Signs proclaiming “Syrup for Sale” swing briskly on mailboxes and porches. There’s maple candy and maple sugar for sale, too. Sugaring operations range from small ones, like ours, where we produce about 350 gallons of syrup in a season, to large ones that produce thousands of gallons. Maple syrup provides critical income to many families here. [Photo 2]

From sap to syrup

Maple syrup is made from the sap of sugar maple trees. The sap, which is watery but has a high sugar content, is collected and boiled. It thickens as the water evaporates during boiling until it reaches the syrup stage. On average, 40 gallons of sap are needed to make 1 gallon of syrup.

The sugaring process is labor-intensive, to be sure, but especially for an operation like ours, where we rely on more traditional methods. Here’s the drill at Lehman Lodge:

TAP THE TREES - In late winter, as the temperature starts to inch toward 32°F., holes are drilled and taps are inserted into the trees about 3 to 4 feet off the ground. Large trees can support several taps. We follow tradition and hang metal buckets from the taps to catch the dripping sap. These are then emptied by hand. In contrast, many operations today run plastic tubing from the taps so that the sap drips into holding tanks. This saves time and labor because it eliminates the need to gather the sap by hand in the woods. [Photo 3]

LET IT DRIP - Once the taps are in and the buckets are hung, you become weather-obsessive. For the sap to flow up the trees, where some of it will drip out the taps, temperatures must be below-freezing at night and above-freezing during the day. When the conditions are perfect, the sap drips from the taps like a leaky faucet. [Photo 4]

GATHER THE SAP - When the buckets are full, we head to the woods to gather the sap. The buckets are emptied into larger pails. [Photo 5]

Those pails are then emptied into a small tank that’s towed through the woods by a tractor. We make our way through the woods, emptying buckets and making multiple trips with the tank, until we’ve gotten to every tree that’s been tapped. [Photo 6]

BOIL AND CAN - When the tank is full, it’s towed to a boiling shed that sits at the edge of the woods and is attached to our lodge. The sap is drawn into a large channeled pan in the boiling shed. [Photo 7]

Beneath the pan, we build an intensely hot wood fire and keep it stoked. [Photo 8] The fire heats the sap in the pan and keeps it boiling rapidly. (Some operations today use fuel oil instead of wood.) When it reaches the syrup stage, the sap is drawn out of the pans, poured into a canner and canned in various types of containers.

Making the grade
Maple syrup is assigned a grade according to its color and flavor intensity:
Grade A Light Amber, or Fancy
Grade A Medium Amber
Grade A Dark Amber
Grade B

The lightest in color and most delicate in flavor is Grade A Light Amber. Grade B is often recommended for cooking because it has the deepest color and strongest flavor, similar to molasses.

A successful season
Our week at the sugar bush was fruitful. We gathered four days and made nearly 175 gallons of syrup. The season is nearly over now, and it looks like our total production will be over 350 gallons, which was our goal.

Our muscles ache, and our Honda Civic groans as it motors back home to Minnesota packed with syrup. But we have a whole year to recover, and come next spring, we’ll be back in these woods, tapping, gathering and boiling.