Collecting Maple Sap for Syrup–and for an Excuse to Say “Spile”


Maple syruping: that’s my topic this week, although it had stiff competition with landmark events and astonishing everyday occurrences.

Landmark events? Early in the week I finished the first draft of my second novel. I was travelling, but not for work, which gave me the time to concentrate.

Another landmark event: My dad turned 92. My sister-in-law made an amazing spread of foods:  avocado dip that was tasty and light, a previous generation’s antipasto bowl, three lasagnas for three dietary needs, a green salad with a confetti of plant families in it, garlic bread, wine (of course), and chocolate cake with ice cream. After his earlier party at his group home, Dad said he’d have to change his estate documents to disperse the chocolate.

Astonishing everyday occurrences?  Entering the cabin to the jaunty scent of Irish Spring, which a friend said will ward off woodrats in Taos. Our resident rat still left its sign, but maybe the soap repelled new ones. We slipped the pale green bars on top of cupboards, alongside rubber boots, and under tables, wherever a rat might scurry.

Another astonishing occurrence?  A starry sky seen from the hot tub on a moonless night. The hot tub started at 36°, but seven hours later we’d burnt enough wood to get it to 104°, and we hopped in. When I slid under the water I felt I’d entered a bath of paraffin. The surface rippled, but the water’s heavy mass surrounded my body, pushing the cold and the cares away.

Another astonishing occurrence? Our power comes from batteries most of the time, but we have to run the generator for a couple hours to charge them back up to 25.2 volts. When they drop to 24.5 we turn the generator on, but if we forget, the power cuts off at 23.8 to protect the batteries. But as I was carding nettles on Sunday morning, the power suddenly cut off–and that was with the generator on, which made no sense.  We pulled on jackets and boots, and ran to the shop. Under the generator a puddle of oil was spreading. Around it were spurt-trails of oil.  A maintenance job now looms. Until it’s done, we have no power.

Landmark, landmark, astonishing, astonishing, astonishing . . . but the highlight was that the maple sap started flowing.

~ ~ ~

It’s not really sap, if sap means “water pulled by evaporation from the leaves, thus moving in tension from soil to root to stem to leaves.” There are no leaves right now, this winter sap moves downward  (not up), and it has sugar in it. But we call it sap anyway.

In the winter, water gets pulled up into the crown of maple trees by freezing. (In contrast, in other species, freezing causes water to be pushed downward and out.) The water then stays perched in the crown until a thaw, at which point, together with sugars, the water flows down, driven by gravity, through the same conduits it goes up through in the summer. In fact, if a frozen maple  is cut down, when it thaws, the sap flows out of the tree’s base, not up from the stump.

~ ~ ~

To make syrup, you collect sap as it descends, and then boil it.  You drill an angled hole in the stem, and then stick a rigid tube in it (called a spile or spoil) that you connect to a jug with flexible tubing.  You collect the liquid from the jug, strain it, and then evaporate it on the woodstove down to about 1/60th the original volume.

I’ve had three spiles  in our bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum) trees since November, just in case.  I think of them as “hopeful spiles” in the same sense that mutations have been called “hopeful monsters.” What the spiles hoped for was daily temperature cycles that would pull water upward during a freeze and let it drop during a thaw.  After I, at last, read a forecast for freeze-thaw cycles, I made a day-trip out to install a dozen more spiles. (Maybe it was I that was hopeful, not the spiles.) We collected 100 cups of sap in four days.

Divide by 60?  1 and 2/3 cups of syrup. That’s it.

“Mehh,” you might say. “You could have bought 1 and 2/3 cups of syrup for five bucks.”

“No way,” I’d say back. “I got to be interested in the thermometer, and walk around like I was cool, with buckets, jugs, tubes, a drill, drill bits, a mallet, and a spile remover. I got to say spile. I got to use metal spiles I’d ordered, and wooden spiles I made over the summer by reaming the pith out of blue elderberry stems.  I got to dig with bare hands in the frigid leaf litter so the jugs would sit upright. I got to put cheek to ground, to inspect  newly-installed tubes for swelling droplets. I got to mosey up trails, fall down ferny cliffs, and wade through berry vines that held my legs back like Therabands. I got to plod creekside and look for fish. I got to stare at a canopy until I was sure it was a maple and not an alder.”

“And when I was good and cold,” I’d tell you, “I got to build up two fires, learn about generator gasket life, and sit by the woodstove trying to find a better way to card  nettles.  After enough wood had burnt outside, I got to slip into the paraffin hot tub under the stars. And then I re-entered the cabin to the jaunty scent of Irish Spring, with the smallest note of maple.”

One thought on “Collecting Maple Sap for Syrup–and for an Excuse to Say “Spile”

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  1. Thanks! I didn’t realize it would be better to hold off. That’s good to know. We had such great freeze-thaw cycles early in the season this year though, which I think is unusual here! I will check out your blog.


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