Steam pours into the air above the roof of the sugaring shack on Bear Cub Road in Lake Placid, and a warm breakfasty aroma wafts over visitors getting out of their parked cars.
Candace Kubek, of Coopersburg, Pennsylvania, has never been to a sugaring shack before. Her husband, Martin, says, “I told her she had to do it once before we leave.”
It’s the first of March, and the syrup makers at Uihlein Forest in Lake Placid have been boiling sap for two weeks. With 5,300 maple trees tapped, they make around 80 gallons of maple syrup a day. The Kubeks follow Joseph Orefice, director of operations, inside the sugaring shack, where they get a quick lesson in maple syrup making. Keith Otto, forest technician, and Ryan Nerp, who works at the facility part-time, are keeping an eye on production.
When the hot syrup comes out of the evaporator, the Kubeks are given samples in tiny paper cups.
“An excellent vintage,” Martin quips, tossing his down.
This sugar shack is two years old, according to Orefice, and syrup sales have paid for it. “Our goal is to be an educational and research facility,” he said. “It already has paid for itself.”
A more elegant illustration of photosynthesis (carbon dioxide + water + sunlight = sugar + oxygen) would be hard to find, yet the process of producing maple syrup is simple enough that almost anyone can get into it.
If you have mature maple trees on your property — around 50 years old — you can put a tap in a tree and hang a bucket underneath it, or use plastic tubing to connect taps to a five-gallon bucket.
“Old galvanized equipment is a bad idea,” Orefice advises, noting that such gear’s solder can contain lead. “Use food-grade plastic.”
You don’t even have to boil it down yourself. The Community Maple Project at the Wild Center in Tupper Lake accepts sap from local residents. During the coming weekends, community members can bring sap to the nature museum to have it boiled down into syrup.
“The nice thing about maple syrup production is that it works at all scales,” said Orefice. “I first did it in a pan on the stove.”
“It’s a slippery slope,” said Addison Bickford, owner of Maple Works. He produces maple syrup on 13 acres of his property in Rainbow Lake. He started tapping trees as a kid, but nowadays he sells about 100 gallons a year. Visitors are encouraged to stop by and buy direct from the shack.
“You can even bring your own jug,” said Bickford. “That saves me bottling it.”
“A lot of people really like my syrup. They say it’s the best,” said Bickford. “Who am I to argue with that? But I think it’s because I have a large proportion of red maple to sugar maple.”
Bickford said blind taste tests with customers showed him that many people prefer the darker syrup. Sugar maples have traditionally been preferred for syrup making because their sap has a higher sugar content. Thus, the time it takes to boil sap down into syrup is less, and the syrup is lighter and clearer. Red maples and other types of maples have lower sugar content and, according to Bickford, a stronger flavor.
“The trees dry up after six or seven weeks,” said Bickford. “I savor the end of the season because many people prefer the dark syrup. I do, myself, but I’m glad some people like the light stuff because I can sell it.”
Jack and Phyliss Drury, of Mark Twain Maple Works in Saranac Lake, got into syrup production five or six years ago. “It’s a team effort,” Jack said.
The brand comes from the fact that Twain spent the summer of 1901 in their house on Lower Saranac Lake.
The Drurys got started when Phyliss bought 10 acres of sugar bush across State Route 3, on Dewey Mountain. Their tap line crosses under the road in a culvert, and traverses neighbors’ properties on the way to the sugar shack. Each neighbor gets a free half-gallon of syrup for hosting the lines.
“It’s a semi-hobby, semi-revenue-producing venture,” said Jack. “As long as you don’t count your own hours, you make a little money. We started with 40 taps.”
They now have around 400 taps, and produce around 80 gallons a year, which they sell at the shack on Lake Street, as well as through friends, relatives and their website.
Jack is a retired educator. After the sudden death of his eldest son, Eli, in a car accident, he found tapping maple trees became something to occupy his time. Along with all the learning that goes along with syrup making, there are conferences, camaraderie with other syrup makers and socializing with visitors.
“The Wild Center got a grant to do storytelling about maple syrup,” said Jack. “My video became a memorial to my son.”
On a recent day, he spent six hours tapping trees: Every year the taps are plugged after the season, and new ones made.
“This helps keeps the trees healthy,” he explains. He demonstrates the “W” pattern of taps on a tree near the shack. “Each new tap is 10 inches higher, or lower, than the one before, and 3 to 4 inches over.”
“I love it,” said Drury. “It’s just another reason to be outdoors.”