Somewhere between February's bone-chilling cold and May's crisp, white bloodroot blossoms, the sap rises in the maple trees on my lakeshore. Between the ice crystals and the first scent of summer comes the season of mud. This is the time when we forsake our jobs and other responsibilities to play in the woods—to make maple syrup with friends.
We tap maple trees with a brace and bit. We carry five-gallon buckets of sap, fresh with the scent of spring, from trees to sugar camp. We split 1-foot lengths of maple, ash, and ironwood and feed the fires until the hair on the back of our hands singes. We boil the sap down to sweet, golden syrup. We share our days with people who return year after year to walk the trails, to work, and to talk.
Nights below freezing and days above 40 degrees, when the ground is frozen first thing in the morning but melts to mud by noon, are ideal for sugaring. If the wind blows over the lake ice before it hits the trees, or if the temperature barely drops to 32 degrees at night, or if the sun doesn't shine, the sap may not run. But whether the sap runs or not, the sugar bush is a wonderful place to be.
In March the woods are an etching in black and white, branches against snow. The drumming of a downy woodpecker sends out a sharp rat-a-tat-tat in the silence. As the snow melts and the mud deepens around the fire pits, the sap dripping into the cans sounds a steady plink, plink, plink. By April Vs of Canada geese fly overhead, looking for open water. Crimson cup fungi poke through the mulch of pale brown leaves. In early May the last drops of sap have turned yellow and the mud has dried. Wild leeks thrust their pungent leaves upward toward sunlight. We pull the taps from the trees, clean our equipment, and say goodbye.
Another season in the sugar bush has come and gone. Our lives return to normal. No more daily picnics, no more trying to do my usual week's work in a day and a half, no more long days in the woods with friends until summer passes and winter comes again. Then we know that it is almost time for the sugar bush—that we have almost, once again, reached the season of mud.
This essay first appeared in Otter Tail Review.