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"Sugar and Smoke" by Beth Weick, as published in North Country News, April 2011

It's 5:06am. By headlamp & memory I clamber down the ladders of the my silo abode and delicately balance my way atop the trail's icy crust to the tiny shack at woods edge. I stop by the community building en route for the following provisions: a stick of butter, a jug of water, and a hatchet.

This means sugaring season.

Once inside the rickety door, I crouch to light the sticks and newspaper awaiting within the belly of our rusty evaporator. Laid in place the night before, the kindling crackles to life quickly. I'm particular about the fire for the stove offers an imperfect system, full of inefficiencies and character. Getting off to a quick, hot start is key and I best be sure my sleepy eyes and groggy hands don't deter the process.

I start with barely ten gallons of sap atop the stove and have it boiling within fifteen minutes. I use a four-pan system, the back two being warming trays, the front being the intermediate step, and the middle pan – ultimately – being the finishing pan. Using a ladle and a strainer, I'll move eighty gallons of sap across the stove over the next fifteen hours.

The result will be two gallons of dark, sweet, smoky maple syrup.

Between beginning and end, nonetheless, is a rhythm of constant motion. I maintain that if there's time to sit, then the process is not progressing sufficiently efficiently. Therefore, it is amongst sweet-smelling steam and smoke that burns the eyes, that a confined dance is choreographed. I filter, transfer, and add sap as, thankfully, these watched pots do boil. The empty buckets gradually stack up: twenty gallons, forty gallons, sixty gallons, eighty. Around this work, I split wood (hence the hatchet), feeding the fire frequently and stockpiling wood for the nighttime hours.

In every spare moment, I drink water. I'll guzzle two to three gallons each boil day (hence the jug). While that minimizes the headache, I still leave the shack desiccated and weary, not to mention the inhaled soot that renders me sounding like a struggling asthmatic.

The stick of butter, I'd like to clarify, is not some personal endurance trick. Rather, it is the 911 call of sugaring emergencies. At some point, usually first occurring in late morning, the sugar content of the final pan will gain that critical ratio when, over intense heat, it wants to boil over. While still far from finished syrup, care must be taken to not burn this saccharine, over-zealously-bubbling sap water. At this juncture, the simplest act is also the most effective: throw in some butter and ta-da, problem solved. No need to dramatically dampen the fire, no need to cool the pan with cold sap…

Eventually, though, as evening settles around the shack and a few bright stars are visible from the smoky doorway, the end approaches. First, sap ceases to be added to the warming pans; then only two pans are left atop the evaporator; the fire is allowed to die down just a bit; and finally it is the finishing pan alone that garners my consideration. I study it, attentive and focused, waiting. At a crucial moment the bubbles will achieve a distinctive unity and coherence atop the sap-turned-syrup's surface. They rise up, and it is suddenly quite clear that the day's alchemy is complete.

Liquid gold, with an indescribable intensity to its fresh flavor, has once again been made.

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