The Sweet Season

When the sap starts to flow at Patterson Farms, visitors can pitch in and help in the annual production of maple syrup.


Cover Story

March 16, 2003|By Cindy Ross | Cindy Ross,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

I tramp through the snow, following a blue plastic tube. Clear sap, the lifeblood of maple trees, slowly runs downhill through the translucent tubing. In my arms is a coil of line that I'm taking to the far end of this "sugarbush."

The woods ring out with the sound of portable drills making tap holes, and also of laughter, as half a dozen workers go about their tasks.

My family and I are here in Sabinsville, at the northern border of Pennsylvania, working with the folks of Patterson Farms during maple sugaring time. This is the season when magic occurs in sugar maple country, and Patterson Farms is one of the few places that allow visitors to experience it firsthand.

When most people think of maple sugaring, they think of New England, but Pennsylvania, along with New York and West Virginia, have many maple syrup producers. (There are producers in Maryland, too, but few large ones, mostly because elevations aren't high enough to grow abundant sugar maples, the trees that produce the sweetest sap.)

It's 10 a.m., and we are busy running lines to 300 new trees that zigzag up a slope, allowing gravity to coax the sap downward to a tank by the road. These trees will join forces with the rest of the 26,000 maples that Richard Patterson taps, making this third-generation "sugar master" the second largest producer of maple syrup in Pennsylvania.

Sugaring is no small undertaking. Only backyard syrup makers hang pails these days. The setup at Patterson Farms is more akin to a farming operation, with miles and miles of plastic tubing, and fairly sophisticated processing equipment to boil the sap and produce syrup, candy and other products. Volunteers are welcome.

When you come to Patterson Farms, you can take a tour and be an observer, or you can work, as we are doing. We've come to learn about maple syruping, and we want to participate in as many activities and chores as we can, without getting in the way.

The maple season generally runs from mid-February to early April. Work begins in the sugarbush around January, however, because the plastic lines often need to be repaired. Animals sometimes damage the tubing during the winter. (Bears have been known to puncture the line with their teeth to get at the sweet sap.)

"Sugar water" starts to run when the weather is cold at night (with temperatures below freezing) and warm during the day (with temperatures around 45 to 50 degrees). Too much of either extreme and the flow slows or stops.

This time of year, Rich Patterson studies long-range weather forecasts to help determine when to insert the taps into the trees, which takes place about four or five days before the expected flow. In a good year, Patterson Farms produces between 6,000 and 7,000 gallons of syrup.

In the sugarbush, workers look for mature maples, at least 10 inches in diameter, in which to insert taps.

"Do you ever tap the wrong tree?" I ask some of the workers, who are wearing insulated overalls. The question sends a series of rolling laughs through the woods.

"Mike knows about that," one teases. "I said to him, 'I don't think it's a maple,' " but he said, 'Sure it is. Tap it.' It was a butternut."

"At least it wasn't a hemlock," Mike says, chuckling.

The guys tell me that each tree can easily support two or three taps without hurting it or taking what the tree needs for its own health.

Though there are trees everywhere in these wild north woods, the forest is disappearing.

"I'm losing 10,000 taps in one sugarbush because the owner has decided to cut his trees," Patterson says. "It is a terrible loss.

"The tubing isn't pretty," he acknowledges, and it stays in the forest season after season. "But by maple sugaring, we are keeping the trees here, saving the forest and allowing it to remain wild. That's a big thing."

A sweet 'miracle'

It's beginning to warm up outside. That means the sap has begun to rise. Seconds after a drill bit is backed out of one tree, I am amazed to see clear liquid running out.

I sample it and can taste its 2 percent sugar content -- the boiling process later will make it much sweeter. It reminds me of the stash of maple candies I have in my pocket, and I pop one in my mouth to hold me over until lunch. The delicious candy dissolves on my tongue almost instantly.

Patterson's sister, Mary Lee Zechman, gave me a bag of candy earlier and warned me that they were addictive. This whole sugaring life is addictive. It gets in your blood. The amount of work required in a short period of time is extreme. Yet Patterson's relatives, neighbors and friends gather every season to help.

I feel privileged to be witnessing this natural miracle, and that's just what it feels like when you stand near the converted milk tank by the road that collects the sap, and watch the golden liquid running into it.

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