By Andrew Hind
As the rivers and creeks around Lake Simcoe begin to flow, the sap starts running in the maple trees on Watershed.
Today, maple syrup is largely a novelty, a cottage industry, and the harvesting of maple sap a quaint event used to entertain children. In the Ontario of yesteryear, however, it was an important yearly rite, and example of typical pioneer ingenuity in using local resources to provide for their needs.
Cane sugar, which had to be imported from the Caribbean, was both rare and expensive in rural 19th-century Ontario. Maple sugar, painstakingly manufactured from the sweet springtime sap of maple trees, was an ideal substitute. Many landowners retained an acreage of bush for this very reason.
Of course, collecting maple sap for sugar was not the invention of European settlers. Woodland natives had been practising it for centuries before the first Europeans appeared in North America. They used knives to gash a maple tree, cutting through the bark into the soft wood beneath. Into this wound was inserted a wooden chip along which the leaking sap would run, eventually dripping into birch pails or hollowed out logs resting on the ground below.
Boiling the sap down was done in one of two methods. In the first, red-hot stones were dropped into the trough, new ones added when the old ones cooled, to slowly boil the sap. In the second method, the sap would be boiled in earthenware pots. Whatever the method, maple sugar was an important part of the aboriginal peoples’ diet.
Early Ontario settlers recognized the value of tapping maple trees and set aside several weeks each spring to harvest the sap. Unlike today, comparatively little maple syrup was actually produced; instead, settlers used the sap for manufacturing beer, vinegar and, most importantly, maple sugar.
The European way of making maple sugar was on a far larger scale than that practised by aboriginal people. First, the homesteader would clear dead trees and debris from the area, providing trails through the bush that were easily navigable by horses pulling sleighs. The centre point of the bush was cleared especially thoroughly because it was here that the boiling fire located or a sugar shed built.
Gashes were made into trees and a round spout (originally wooden, but later metal) that was hollowed in the centre was inserted an inch into the wood. Troughs or metal pails were placed below to collect the dripping sap.
The boiling process begins with a raging fire, which was conscientiously kept fed for days or weeks on end. The season was so short that no time could be wasted, and a significant drop in the fire’s temperature would slow the boiling process.
Large iron or copper kettles were used for boiling the sap. When the sap had been boiled down to thin syrup it was poured into a deep wooden vessel, where it was allowed to settle. Then it was poured into another kettle that was hung over a slow fire. As the liquid began to simmer, impurities would rise to the surface where they could easily be skimmed off.
The process was far from complete, however. The liquid still had to be boiled down further in order to make sugar. When at last it had been boiled enough — you could tell by dropping a spoonful into the snow; if it hardened, the liquid had been boiled thoroughly and the syrup would be poured into pans to settle into sugar.
As the 20th century dawned, fewer and fewer farmers devoted time to maple sugar manufacturing. Cane sugar was becoming cheaper and was readily available even in rural Ontario. The harvesting of maple sap, once a yearly rite for most farmers, became rare.
Today, most of the sap collected in Ontario sugar bushes — and there are still more than a dozen in just the Lake Simcoe region — ends up as sweet, sticky syrup destined for the breakfast table. Though rarer today, harvesting maple sap is a tradition that we hold onto as a quintessentially Canadian celebration of Spring.
For more information on maple syrup harvesting, festivals and farms near you, visit the Ontario Maple Syrup Producer Association website at www.ontariomaple.com.
Andrew Hind is the co-author, along with Maria Da Silva, of Secrets of Lake Simcoe: Fascinating Stories from Ontario’s Past (James Lorimer and Co.)
Photo: Hawkestone Creek begins to widen at the end of March, although there is still lots of snow!