This year’s late winter weather may have interfered with spring sports, but for Pine River-Backus High School Activities and Athletics Director Randy Schwegel it isn’t all bad, because that weather also helped produce more than 1,000 gallons of maple sap.
Schwegel’s been toiling since April 6 to harvest maple sap to turn into syrup. He’s been tapping maple trees for 25 years, ever since he and former Pine River-Backus High School teacher and coach Bob Nelson learned to tap trees from Nelson’s father. In that time Schwegel learned many things, like how to predict when the sap will run.
“Today should really be good. If it gets in the teens at night and then 40s or so the next day it will really go,” Schwegel said.
The secret to his success is that he keeps records of everything from fishing, to gardening and tapping trees and the weather conditions at the time. It’s like a personal almanac.
“We live and die by it (the records),” he said.
This year has been a good year for maple sap, as Schwegel has been harvesting milk jugs overflowing with sap and collection bags that are literally bulging on a daily basis. On April 22 they didn’t even have enough containers to collect all the sap and had to leave gallons of it in the woods.
Of course, collecting sap is only part of the process. To make syrup, the sweet water from the trees must be boiled down, and that takes two things: heat and time.
“It’s really low tech. You do put in a lot of time, no doubt about it. But this time of year there’s not a lot going on. Typically you can’t get out on the ice. You can’t get your boat in the lake. I do cut firewood this time of year and then we make syrup,” he said.
First, Schwegel boils down about 120 gallons of sap over a wood fire for about 8-10 hours, or until the remainder can fit into a smaller cooking pot over a propane burner. Once there, Schwegel boils it down. His method for knowing when the sap has boiled down all the way is “pretty scientific,” he said. It’s not done with a thermometer or hydrometer, it’s done by taste. When ready, it is strained and canned.
Schwegel rarely does this labor of love alone. He often has help from family and friends. This year among those who assisted were Terry Holden, Mike Chapman, his brother Rob, and some Pine River-Backus students who wanted to see what the process was all about.
“They went out and helped me drill, helped me pick up, and they wanted to see the final product so they helped can it. They saw the whole process then,” Schwegel said. “I’ve been out here picking the stuff up by myself. And it takes a long time and gets you really tired.”
Schwegel’s homemade syrup comes at a pretty good price, too.
“I give it away. I never sell any of it,” he said. “I give it away for Christmas time or if they (friends or family) have a special somebody coming up and they want to treat them I’ll give them a quart of syrup or something. It’s fun to give it away and people like it.”
He only requires that those he gives it to return his jars, and he’s always ready to suggest his favorite use for syrup.
“Try it on vanilla ice cream, I think that’s the best,” he said.
Schwegel has also tapped birch trees in the past, just to see what it was like, but the sugar content is far less than maple. As it is, to make a gallon of maple syrup takes between 30 and 40 gallons of sap, and it is all dependent upon weather.
“Last year we went out there and the spring was just a goofy spring. We tapped and I think we ended up with 280 gallons. It’s just hit and miss and it wasn’t very good,” he said.
For those who would like to get into harvesting maple sap for syrup, Schwegel has some advice.
“If you’re going to start doing it as a hobby, I would say just start with a manageable amount. Maybe tap a couple dozen trees. See how fast you can get rid of the sap, how efficient you can boil it off and get rid of it,” he said.
In addition, starting to harvest sap doesn’t require a lot of money. Spiles can be made from simple half-inch copper tubing. Collection can be done using gallon milk jugs or buckets, and boiling can be done in large pans over outdoor fires. There are also plenty of other people in the area who tap trees for maple sap and many of them would welcome assistance to collecting and processing syrup. Just ask around.