TUPPER LAKE - With North Country temperatures beginning to rise above freezing, the sap is finally starting to flow.
Matt Klippel and Andrew Pape, two sugar makers at The Wild Center, stepped outside into the bright sunlight of Thursday morning and scanned the tips of the naked branches in the nearby forest canopy.
"I think we're going to get a run today," Klippel said, his flattened hand held steady above his eyes, as if saluting the sun. Pape agreed.
The Wild Center sugar maker Matt Klippel drills a hole in a sugar maple to prepare to insert a spile, which will divert the tree’s sap into a bucket once the sap starts to run.
(Enterprise photo — Shaun Kittle)
If Klippel were right, it would be the first sap run of the year. It's a day both men have been eagerly awaiting, a day that is three weeks behind schedule due to the region's extended winter.
Klippel and Pape have helped tap about 600 trees this year, mostly sugar maples with some reds thrown in, as part of The Wild Center's Community Maple Project. The project began in 2012 after an evaporator was donated to the nature museum.
Tapping a tree isn't like turning on a faucet. Once a spile is inserted into a tree, the conditions have to be right for the sap to flow.
Sugar maples make and store sugar throughout the summer, reserving it to fuel the following year's new growth.
As the spring sun warms the tips of a tree's branches, carbon dioxide bubbles within the tree expand, forcing the sap down the trunk. Since there is limited space inside the tree, this movement creates pressure, which causes the sap to flow into any unoccupied space available, like a sugar maker's spile.
When the temperature drops at night, the carbon dioxide bubbles contract, the sap moves back up the tree and the process repeats.
Once the sap turns cloudy, a stage sugar makers call "bud sap," the spiles are pulled and the tapping is finished. Depending on conditions, that can happen one to six weeks after the sap starts to run.
"Two years ago, we had a terrible season," Klippel said. "It went from winter to spring temperatures overnight. The days were warm, and it didn't dip below 40 at night. The sap just stopped moving after a week."
Sugar maple sap only contains about 2 percent sugar, but most maple syrup contains about 66 percent sugar. That's where The Wild Center comes in.
"When someone wants us to tap trees on their property, we provide all of the supplies and we tap the trees ourselves," Klippel said. "We also handle the evaporating process."
Participants, affectionally called Tupper Tappers, can opt to have museum staff collect the sap buckets and get 50 percent of the syrup produced from their sap. Tupper Tappers who bring the sap to The Wild Center get 60 percent.
For many, the deal is worth it - turning the sap into syrup takes time and volume. It takes 40 to 44 gallons of sugar maple sap to make one gallon of maple syrup.
First, the sap is run through a reverse osmosis machine, which draws the sap into tubes and pushes it into a filter that only water can permeate. The extracted water is sent to a tank, where it is stored and later used to clean the equipment in the sugar shack.
The sap from the osmosis machine has a sugar content of about 8 percent. It is sent via tubes to the evaporator, a stainless steel machine that looks like a deep fryer combined with a woodstove, where it is heated to almost 210 degrees.
A float mounted to the side of the evaporator controls the flow of the sap. When it gets more than an inch-and-a-half deep, the intake tube closes until the sap boils down. Since syrup is heavier than sap, a spigot at the bottom of the evaporator tank allows it to be removed with the turn of a handle.
The sugar concentration in maple sap can vary from year to year and from tree to tree, so sugaring requires skill and patience to achieve a consistent end product.
Birch trees can also be tapped, but their sap typically only contains 1 percent sugar, which lengthens the sugaring process. There is a benefit to birches, though.
"Birch trees typically start to run after the maples are finished, so a lot of sugar makers are starting to tap their birch trees to extend the season," Klippel said.
This is Klippel's first year as a sugar maker at the museum, but it isn't his first time sugaring. He began building his resume 30 years ago, helping his dad build his maple farm in North Creek. His father's operation has grown from a backyard hobby to about 1,200 taps.
Klippel's goal these days isn't quantity; it's education. The Wild Center holds learning seminars throughout the sugaring season, and staff members visit local schools to give students hands-on sugaring lessons.
"I really just want to pass this information on to others, and help keep this tradition alive, and that's the point of all of this," Klippel said. "We'd rather see more people with less taps than more taps with less people involved."
David St. Onge, programs director at The Wild Center, helped start the Community Maple Project. He said a goal of promoting local food in the area is tied into the mission to educate locals and get them involved in sugaring.
"We're more about growing the maple market and education," he said. "Our goal isn't to have 10,000 taps; it's to get more people involved."
Contact Shaun Kittle at 891-2600 ext. 25 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Adirondack Maple Weekend
6:30 p.m., The Marketplace Pub & Deli, Tupper Lake - Music with Jim Boucher and Paul Chartier, food and craft beer made with maple syrup
Saturday and Sunday, all day
Whiteface Mountain Ski Center, Wilmington - maple samples by Shipman Youth Center and Lake Placid Rotary
Paul Smiths VIC - grand opening of new sugar house, family activities
The Wild Center, Tupper Lake - family programs, sugar house tours
Cornell University's Uihlein Forest and Mark Twain Maple Works - maple tours
10 a.m., Mirror Lake Public Beach - broomball tournament with Shipman Youth Center maple syrup sale
1 p.m., Paul Smith VIC - Sap to Syrup Workshop (preregistration required)
2 p.m., Whiteface - Whipeout Fun Obstacle Race
4 p.m., Lake Placid Conference Center - "A Taste of Maple" event
4 p.m., Lake Clear Lodge - Maple Cooking Class
8 a.m. to noon, St. Agnes School, Lake Placid - pancake breakfast
10 a.m., Paul Smiths VIC - Maple Sap 5K Run/Walk
11 a.m., Saranac Avenue across from St. Agnes Church, Lake Placid - ceremonial tree tapping with Rep. Bill Owens
3:45 p.m., Saranac Lake Civic Center - curling exhibition