Category: Winter


Maple Syrup Time Again

Even though day 1 of spring is officially tomorrow, we had a prelude to a spring a couple of weeks ago and as a consequence we have already made 101 litres of maple syrup. I know. That’s a lot of pancakes. But apparently we need more, so I’m heading out shortly to check the lines and collect sap. Before I do that though, I’ll give you a bit of an overview of the operation – purely hobby, by the way, so some of my methods / tools may be a bit questionable to a pro. (And if you work for the CFIA, stop reading this now, because I only sell syrup to friends and family. Thanks very much. Goodbye.)

We (ok, my brother) tapped in mid February this year. It’s a bit of a risky move, because your tapped holes can dry up if there is a long freeze in between runs. We He went for it. He’d collect and boil in the day, I’d come home from work and finish the boil. We’d try to do finishes together, but it didn’t always work out. (Of course, in the March break, when I had LOTS of time to boil and finish, it didn’t run.)

Let me take you through the process with the help of some photos I’ve taken over the years. 

When we’re ready to tap the lines they are already hanging from the trees since we leave them up year round. There is usually some damage to the lines – the deer sometimes like a nibble – so fixing the lines is often necessary. 

tap and fix
We generally fix and tap at the same time, working our way up the line. Hot water, extra tubing and taps are necessary, as is the handy and very sharp knife. 

Tapping takes a day or two – we tap about 300 trees … and several trees have more than one tap. Most taps are connected to tubing (various colours). We do have 20 or so buckets that we use around the house where I don’t want to hang tubing. I can also ask visitors to collect sap from the buckets. It keeps them happy. 

You need to drill on a slight upward angle. Tony’s a pro.
Vintage photo of Liam putting the tap into the freshly drilled hole. Afterwards it is hammered in. 
The spile has a wee trough, a hook and a hole for the lid pin to go through. Clever.
After you hang the bucket on the spile you have to attach the lid with a long metal pin. It’s a bit tricky.
Once the tree has been tapped and the spile hammered in, the sap runs immediately.

The tubing runs downhill and into jerry cans that collect the sap. These were a brilliant choice by my dad as the tubing fits perfectly into the vent hole.

We stretch the lines starting at the bottom of the line, tapping as we go, and raising the line up the trees so that the sap can run easily down the line and into the container.

We collect the sap by exchanging the full cans with empty ones. They conveniently fit in the back of the gator. Clever, eh? 

Cousin Tim jets around to collect. There’s a job for everyone!
If the temperature stays warm the sap will run at night. So we collect at night. The coyotes can freak you out a bit…

The sap is then transferred into big stainless steel containers. We have about 400 gallons of storage space. 

The sap is poured through the first of many filters.

Once we have enough sap to boil, we light up the fire in the sugar shack and feed the sap down through handy pipes. 

You can see the pipes go into the shack right under the obligatory OMSPA sign.

The procedure in the sugar shack is pretty basic. Boil the hell out of the sap until all that’s left is syrup, then filter it and bottle it. The machinery is pretty spectacular though! 

These lovely pans make incredible syrup. They’re made in Quebec by the pros.

The slow work is feeding the fire, skimming the foam, checking the levels and collecting more sap. As it boils down we pull small batches into the finishing pan which sits beside the evaporator pans. Once we have enough to finish (around 26 litres), we light up the propane under finishing pan and prepare to do a “finish”. 

As the sap boils in the upper evaporator pan, we skim off any foam that builds up.
Keeping the boil high is important. We have varying theories on the best way to achieve this. I am right of course.
Once the syrup sap reaches a certain temperature in the lower evaporator pans we pull it off, filtering it as we do so into the finishing pan. This is the second filtering. It’s critical. See the sediment?

This final part is the art of it all. The syrup is boiled in the finishing pan until a certain temperature is reached. This stage of the work involves beautiful caramel bubbles, measuring the Brix (sugar content) with the hydrotherm and taking it off at just the right time. The syrup is poured through its final set of filters as it goes into the bottling pan. 

If you boil the syrup too long and the sugar content is just too high, the syrup will crystallize. Even though it’s pretty and can be used to teach Grade 4 kids in their rocks & minerals unit, it’s a waste of syrup and very disheartening. I’ve become better at finishing now, so I haven’t had crystals in a few years. 

These are my sample bottles that sit in the window. One sample for each finish. The crystals formed within a month.

Making maple syrup is a LONG process. Fun fact: it takes 40 litres of sap to make 1 litre of maple syrup. That’s why it’s a labour of love, and why I’ll smack you if I ever see you leaving maple syrup on your plate. 

Ski Lodge Perspectives

Today the kids are skiing a 1/2 day and I’m not skiing, as I’ve given my skis to Bree and haven’t managed to get a new pair yet. I’m enjoying watching and reminiscing. So when a friend’s boy asked me “do you come here often?” I had to grin. Oh, well ya …

I grew up coming to Devil’s Elbow on weekends. I think I was 3 1/2 when I was first put on skis.  Day to day details are blurry but the general feel of those days remains firmly lodged in my subconscious. Long days. Early mornings. Tired kids. T-bars that lifted me off my feet. Racing. Friends. Dangerous and thrilling forest trails. Catching air on jumps. Puddles in March. Hoarded Mars bars hidden in ski jacket pockets till the time was right. It was an awesome childhood.

Lemme tell ya, it was WAY colder back then, and our clothing was NOT as warm. A chair in front of this fireplace was a coveting thing.

Mom and dad were both Ski Patrollers – they helped start up the Patrol at the Elbow, actually. Their dedicated volunteerism meant that we had to get here early and didn’t leave until the bitter end – after the last sweep, when patrollers would ensure that everyone was off the hills. We had the privilege of hanging out in the patrol hut and the knowledge that if WE skied like a Yeti we’d be in very serious trouble. We were victims on training days. It likely happened once, but my imagination has me being rescued from the chair lift every fall and in gale force winds.

Ski hill photo
Early days at the hill. Mom looking swank in her Patroller gear.

As I sit here getting things out of the lunch bag for the kids, I think of mom’s lunches. I think they were much heartier. Always carefully constructed sandwiches (maybe tuna salad …with lettuce even) and veggie sticks and fruit and cheese. We’d plan to meet at a certain time and damn nation if you were late! Invariably there was a family sized Fruit & Nut bar for dessert.  Dad was in charge of portioning it out. I recall the methodical way he did it, smoothing out the wrapper just so and laying out the squares while we did the math. (The sweets were the highlights of the day of course.)

My lunches are whatever is floating around the fridge and cupboards. Haphazard. I don’t measure up. But the kids eat it all up!

We NEVER bought food from the cafeteria… Lou and I looked longingly at the crap our friends ate … the Vachon cakes … OMG. Joe Louis (chocolate, full circle) and Lune Moons (white, half circle) and the square ones with the raised caramel circle on top. PURE. ENVY. Of course I realize now that it was as equally a matter of economics as of health. The caf was and still is stupidly expensive. As Lou and I got older and had babysitting money we’d buy treats on the sly and eat the crap secretly and happily with our friends.

As I sit here writing and observing things and remembering, a bunch of kids are running through the chalet playing tag … shrieking and flinging themselves under tables. OMFG, if we did that we’d be dead!! Ok, we would never do that in the chalet because the owner, an older dude, Fred, would catch you and yell things and it would end very badly. So he’s obviously dead, but honest to god, how do these parents think that’s ok? IT’S. NOT. O.K. (put on a certain tone of voice here) In my day, kids were with families and then skied and if they didn’t ski, they were playing tag on snow banks by the parking lot but their parents THOUGHT they were skiing. We had very limited choices. Ski or be eating lunch. Or pee. Yes, we could do that.

Some things change and some things stay the same. Skiing is still an awesome thing to do with your kids … and it’s still a ton of work to pull off as a parent. And I will never sit in the chalet for 3 hours again. Pretty near killed me.

View from the chalet.

A Day at the Lake

It’s a lovely thing to come to the lake in the winter. We drive as far in as we can then strap on our snowshoes and hike in a couple of kilometers to the Bell camp. This year we didn’t trust the lake so we went by road, dragging a couple of sleds behind us. The girls went ahead, helter skelter, dropping various things off of their sleds with nary a look behind them. Funny how they didn’t notice. By the time Paul and Liam and I got there, we were laden with bags that had fallen by the wayside. Next year, bungie cords.

The lake is dead quiet. Surreal in the lack of wind and waves and birds and children hooting as they get dragged behind a boat.

We hike in the woods when the ice seems too thin for comfort. We wander around our friends’ cottages. There are snow fights and icicle finds. We are overdressed but grateful for it all.


Inside, it’s so cozy. We all have our books (paper or otherwise) and some have a project – a puzzle, sudoku or a pair of socks to work on. Charades.

Of course lots of great food – and baking is a sure bet with me in the cabin! I get to create all sorts of yummy things – cinnamon buns and cookies and tea biscuits. For dessert tonight is a banana cake. I forgot the ingredients for the topping so I have had to improvise with ice cream bowls, marshmallows, chocolate and pecans. Result? YUM!

All in all, a glorious time at the lake.


Photo cred @carolbell268