Forest Forage – Maple Syruping
"I made it just past the house down at the corner, and about eight or nine deer came out," says Skip Lee, recalling his first visit to the 75‑acre property near Faribault that he has owned for over two decades. The property had a nice vibe. "It felt good. The peace and calm that you don't get through too many things, except through nature."
Skip is a retired Minneapolis firefighter who now spends his time working for Harley Davidson, volunteering at the nearby River Bend Nature Center, and enjoying his woods. In addition to hunting, he likes snowshoeing and snapping photographs of flowers and wildlife. Skip has a hard time picking his favorite local critter, but mentions he has a soft spot for wild turkeys. "They're so hilarious when they run. They run like a cartoon, where their body goes and then their head catches up. And my daughter and I just laugh about that all the time."
On cold spring days, Skip can be found working away at another favorite woodland activity: maple syruping. "My sugar shack is about 50 yards away," he says, gesturing toward his kitchen window. "There's a maple tree out here that a squirrel usually nibbles off a couple of branches, and when I see them start to drip, then I know the sap is running." Skip learned the art of syrup-making 20 years ago from a good friend and long-time resident of the area. Skip was eager to learn the craft: "I needed to know how it was done. I wanted to watch, I wanted to participate." Though intrigued by the process, Skip was initially less-than-enthusiastic about the product. "The first time I tasted it, it was like 'Oh, I've been working for this nasty stuff? Ugh! Give me Mrs. Butterworth!'" he laughs loudly. His tastes have since changed. He now takes a flask of his homemade syrup with him whenever he travels, to not settle for the artificial stuff in breakfast joints!
Today Skip makes his syrup in an evaporator, which speeds up the process and produces a cleaner syrup. However, sometimes he misses the smoky flavor of the syrup he and his friend boiled in open pans over crackling firewood. When he makes enough, Skip sells his syrup; but he always keeps enough for himself and his daughter. He began making syrup in 1996, the year his daughter was born. He remembers racing out of the house and shouting to his friend who was collecting sap, "Rudy! She just said it's time! We're leaving!" Perhaps it is because she was born during syrup season, but Skip's daughter has always loved the sweet treat. "When she was little, she used to sneak out of the house and come up to the sugar shack and scare the bejeebies out of me! 10:30, 11 o'clock, this little, teeny girl in jammies and slippers is standing out at your syrup shack." Skip would ladle hot syrup into his daughter's waiting espresso cup and tell her bedtime stories while it cooled. It is clearly a happy memory for him. "My daughter, she wants to keep the property. She enjoys coming out," he says fondly, adding with one of his characteristic hearty laughs, "except for the wood 30 ticks and the mosquitoes!"