The Sugar Bush
This is my site Written by Geoff on April 1, 2000 – 7:17 pm

This time of year, in the North Country, sunshine is just starting to warm the forest floor, teasing us with our first taste of Spring. This is the time of warming days and cold freezing nights. In the times before the white settlers the Native Americans would be packing up and moving to their selected area of the Sugar Bush. Often the location of these areas were closely guarded and passed down from generation to generation. Wars were fought to keep the location of these sacred spots a secret. 

What is the Sugar Bush that the Native American so closely guarded? The Sugar Bush is the term the early settlers applied to those stands of trees tapped for sugaring. In the spring when the daytime temperature reach above freezing and the nighttime temperatures plummet below is the time when the sap starts to flow. The sugaring season is often short, the first run being the best. Spring rains delete the flavor and once the buds swell the sap develops a bad taste. 

Any trees that produce free flowing sap can be used to make syrup although most produce little sugar or taste very bad. The trees most often tapped in the North Country are the hickory walnut cherry birch , and maple . Some of my fondest memories of my youth are of the early morning breakfasts at our cabin on Little Traverse Lake eating flapjacks smothered in “hickory syrup”, watching the sun slowly rise over Sugar Loaf Mountain. As youngsters we use to save our pennys for the “maple sugar candy” found at Radar’s Totem Shop. What truly sweet memories those were. 

The tree most often associated with sugar making is the maple. While there are over 160 species of maple the Sugar Maple is the one most usually tapped for syrup. It takes about 40 gallons of Sugar Maple sap to produce one gallon of maple syrup, compared to 190 gallons from the Japanese Cutleaf Maple specimen tree in your rock garden. 

Native Americans and early settlers simply gashed the tree with an ax to obtain the sap, a little hard on the trees but effective. Today we use aluminum tubes or spiles to tap the tree. Holes are drilled 2-3 1/2 inches into the south side of the tree about 3 feet off the ground and spiles inserted. One spile may produce 1 gallon of sap a day or 12 gallons a season. No more than 3-4 spiles are placed in a tree and never in one less than 10 inches in diameter. Unlike using an ax, this does not harm the tree. 

Our forefathers used birch bark containers, wooden buckets, and eventually tin pails to collect the sap. Today, with sugar making being a big business, miles of plastic tubing is used to collect the sap and pump it to the sugar house. Little sugar is made today, most sap is made into syrup. To produce syrup, sap is boiled to 218 degrees Fahrenheit before it is put into containers. Today this is done in large stainless steel boilers and cooling tanks. Long gone are the days of open wood fires, large copper kettles, and little kids waiting for the “sugar to be ready”. 

Also gone are the days when every county in the “Sugar Bush” had two or three “sugar camps”. These were small family run operations. Everyone pitched in from cutting and splitting wood, tapping the trees, driving the sled to gather sap, and; of course, the long hours of boiling the sap into syrup. While hard work, it was a family time, like barn raising, haying, quilting bees, and cookie making. Unfortunately, most of the “Sugar Shacks” have disappeared along with much of the “Sugar Bush” from the North Country. Gone are the Bufkas and the Novotnys, of the far North, and their long traditions of fine sugar making. 

Why not take time this Spring with your family to make a little syrup or even sugar. All it takes is a little time, a couple of plastic pails, 4-5 spiles, and a few maple trees, maybe throw in a few birch trees if you are daring. The Michigan Maple Syrup Association is a good place to start at http://www.mi-maplesyrup.com/. Who knows you may start a new family tradition!

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Modified: March 8, 2009 at 9:18 am UTC

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