When you chat with Addison Bickford, standing perhaps next to a sap evaporator, steam swirling through the shack, you come to understand that making syrup is an in-the-moment kind of enterprise.
Sure, there’s some advance work to make sure all the taps are in place, the tubing is strung, and the new vacuum pump is ready to go. But that’s about as far as planning can take you. Once you’re ready it’s a matter of being open to what nature decides the season will be and what your workdays will be like.
When warmer days and spring awakening cause a buildup of pressure within trees, sap can be drawn and business begins. With sap flowing abundantly, you better be ready to work long hours.
Addison usually starts boiling in late morning, beginning with sap stored from the day before. Sap starts to flow again before noon. “Sometimes it comes in faster than I can boil,” he says. “Then I have to stay up until the wee hours.”
Even once the season starts to swing, you need to be ready for nature to close the spigot and leave you with a day or a few to split firewood, play a little fiddle or have a beer or two with friends. But don’t wander too far or begin a project that demands a firm schedule because you need to be there when the sap runs again.
“This time of year I just can’t commit myself to anything,” says Addison. “My girlfriend knows that if she’s expecting me for dinner it’s all contingent on the sap. The sap decides.”
Nor is boiling down syrup something you turn over to an automated contraption that will bubble happily away while you take care of paperwork in an office. It’s an alchemical process that doesn’t especially reward constant fussing but will punish lapses of attention with a burnt potion that sinks the heart.
“I’ve seriously scorched syrup twice,” says the syrupmaker. “It’s a big mess. You have to drain everything and scrub everything and start over.”
The successful practitioner combines an ability to surrender to quiet tedium with a good-humored readiness to spring into action as required. The days go better when shared. On this April day, Addison’s daughter Celeste, returned from college in Montana, brightens the sugar shack. A rescued labradoodle named Hobbes greets visitors and encourages walks through the woods.
Addison makes syrup in a sugarbush encompassing thirteen acres on a gentle slope that falls from the pieced-together, off-the-grid house he built in the woods of Rainbow Lake. He draws sap from more than eight hundred taps and can produce one hundred gallons of syrup in a season. He sells it straight from the evaporator to friends and neighbors (widely separated as they are), who bring their own containers. And he pasteurizes and bottles some for sale in retail shops under the Rainbow’s Edge label. He’s a forester who first came to the area as a Paul Smith’s College student. At fifty-nine, his activities these days include selling firewood and playing fiddle for the traditional bluegrass group, Barn Cats.
With deep cold lingering both day and night, this season has gotten off to a slow start. On an early April afternoon, snow under the trees is still deep enough to require snowshoes. But the sun has pushed temperatures into the fifties by afternoon. The sap is running, Celeste has stoked the wood fire, and sap is boiling away as it moves through six compartments of the evaporator pan. As it thickens, sugar concentrates. When the hydrometer says the time has come, syrup is drawn from the final compartment.
This year, Addison is taking the big step of introducing a vacuum system. Early in the season he’s still skeptical. One of the reasons is aesthetic. He was reluctant to introduce the noise of a generator and pump among the trees. Years ago he moved away from collecting sap in buckets and strung tubing to use gravity to carry sap to the sugar shack located at the base of the slope. But he still has an ear for the plunk, plunk, plunk of sap dripping into buckets hanging from the sides of trees. He taps a few the old-fashioned way where he can hear them through the long days.
The sound of machines threatened to push him even further from the music of dripping sap. But he found a small gas generator that runs quietly, and he thinks he’ll likely stick with it even though the vacuum hasn’t yet increased low as much as he’d hoped. The idea of the system is to pull more sap from the tree than would flow on its own and make the most of a short season.
He has hooked the vacuum pump to a network of tubes gathering sap from about half the taps. The other half still work by gravity. This gives him a controlled experiment. So far, he is getting about twice the flow from the vacuum tubes, but the performance in warm conditions hasn’t been what he had hoped. At least not yet.
The season will continue for as long as six weeks, usually, but it could be shorter this year with the late start. A glance at the snow depth, though, encourages hope for a longer flow.
“I’ve noticed that when the last of the snow disappears the season is over,” Addison says.
It seems this deep blanket on the north-facing slope will be here quite a while yet.
No matter the forecast, though, nature has the final word.
“Sap changes as trees bud out,” he says. “That’s the end even if the weather is right. Budding sap doesn’t make good syrup. It has a metallic flavor.”
Wouldn’t an office job be easier than serving the whims of unaccountable nature?
“I’ve had nine-to-five jobs. I didn’t think they were easier. Making syrup, I would do it for free. There’s nothing I’d rather be doing.”