I came back from Tarpum Bay way too early. I imagined that it would only be a couple of weeks before my willow trees would get that yellow-green haze, and those little purple crocuses would start poking up through the leaves in my flower bed. I said to myself, “I can do anything for a couple of weeks, even endure the Michigan winter with gray days and grayer snow banks.”
“I need to get back home and see my family, and pay my taxes, and work some.”
“I can do this.”
Well, it’s been four weeks and guess what? It’s still cold, and gray, and there’s plenty of dirty snow in the woods behind my house. More coming next week, the weather report says. Fah!
I am gloomier by the day—my seasonal affective disorder seems to have wrapped itself around me like heavy wet wool. Even a trip to the mailbox seems like an awful lot of trouble.
So I was delighted when my friend Gerry emailed me to ask if I wanted to go to a pancake breakfast on the following Saturday. “I have some friends who make maple syrup,” he said, and they always throw a big breakfast during syrup season, and I always go.” And that’s how Gerry and his son and son’s family climbed into his car, picked me up, and we all headed south this morning.
“South” in this case is only 25 miles or so, just past the Michigan un-metropolis of Nessen City, a tiny town named after a Northwest Michigan lumber baron. (Nessen City has maybe, ten houses and a church and is designated officially as a “Populated Place”.)
What we did notice, though, was in the 25 miles south of my house, the snow was almost gone, and the front yards of the farm houses had a small, subtle suggestion of green. And we remarked on robins, and horses, and a couple of long-legged big brown birds out in the middle of a field.
People were out in their yards in the 30-degree sunshine, staring wonderingly at the stuff which had been buried under the snow since November and was now in full view. “Look, Pa, I found the tractor,” I could imagine someone calling.
Not long after Nessen City, another (and even smaller) Populated Place. You know, in my past life I was a township supervisor for a township not far from where we were, but I never knew there was a Pomona, Michigan. Nevertheless, there it was, and there was a sign, even!
The road to Pomona isn’t paved, but just on the other side of a crossroads was a hand-lettered cardboard sign announcing, simply, “Breakfast.”
We pulled into the parking lot of a long, oddly-shaped building and Gerry explained to me that he knows the family whose maple syrup operation this is: he works with one of the daughters of the owner. He names the owner and I say, “You don’t mean ROGER, do you?” He tells me that indeed that’s the right family, and I tell him that Roger the owner and I were on the township board together over (can it be?) thirty years ago. Funny, isn’t it?
Roger and I met a little later and both agreed that we probably wouldn’t have recognized each other—he got shorter and I became rounder. He got gray. I, of course, didn’t.
We joined the line of friends of the family waiting to get inside for the pancakes, sausage, and lovely maple syrup. It seems that every year this breakfast happens, a celebration of the syrup-making season in Northern Michigan (and very much like the cultural tradition of the ‘sugar shack’ breakfast in Eastern Canada and in Vermont). The food is free and the hope is that you’ll buy syrup, of course, to take home. (Gerry doesn’t disappoint them: he buys a couple of cases of syrup and I tease him that he’s done his holiday shopping well in advance. )
I don’t know how many people are served at this event: the building is crowded and though the pancakes are wonderfully light and fluffy and the sausage crisp, we don’t want to take up too much space for too long—there will be several hundred people enjoying the occasion, it looks like.
My friends Dean and Diane boil maple sap every year, and so I’m familiar with the process. Dean and Diane started it as a hobby, and have an outdoor wood fire and a big flat pan, and a lot of buckets—and usually have friends over to drink sap tea and carry buckets. Roger’s operation is a big bigger: he’s built a huge oven, also wood-fired, and a stove for boiling down the sap. New this year are yards and yards of tubing leading down the hill to the building from the trees—no more buckets of sap being carried down the steep slope.
But it’s still hard work—it takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup, and that’s a lot of buckets and boiling. There have been some innovations in the process, perhaps more accurately in the storage of the product, but the principle remains the same—boil it down.
Actually, the Native Americans probably froze it, discarded the ice, and froze it again. There are many colorful tales about how the tribes came to make the syrup: interestingly enough, a similar story crops up in several different places. In that story the Indians discovered a rich, sweet syrup which ran freely from the trees. They would lie under the trees letting the sweet stuff drip into their mouths until one day a deity came upon them and said, “You folks are getting lazy. Nothing good comes without work.” And from then on, the syrup was watered down and came out of the tree as sap which needed to be boiled down and condensed.
“Hard work? You betcha!” Roger’s partner tells us as we admire the shiny metal furnace that heats and sterilizes the sap. “We’ve been at this for three weeks solid now,” he says. He explains that this has been an unusually productive winter, due to the prolonged season of warmish days and cold nights. The secret is in the cold nights, he says. “Then when it gets warmer the next day, the sap runs.”
He tells us that prices are good this year, too, particularly since the last few harvests have been slower on the east coast. Michigan is the sixth largest syrup producing state in the US on average, but we may have climbed up a couple of percentage points because our last few seasons have been so good.
It’s a happy problem, he continues, but the partners have had to make some hard decisions. One of them is whether to sell their entire product to a large operation, who would buy every drop they could produce. “It’s a tough one,” he says. “Do we really want to be a big operation? Then there’d be more equipment to buy and care for, and more employees to manage. No, we thought, we don’t want to go there.”
He looks around the room, filled with friends in blue jeans and wool shirts, happily eating feather-light pancakes and rich syrup. “Nope,” he says. “This is where we want to be right now.”
Heading home, I think, “This is where I want to be right now, too.” The sun is out at last and the snow has melted only 25 miles south of my house. Spring is on its way.
When I get out of the car, Gerry hands me a bottle of maple syrup as a souvenir. I take it in the house and put it on the kitchen counter where I can see it, sparkling in the sunlight.