Tapping in the Sugar Bush

“Tapping in the Sugar Bush,” Friend, Mar. 1985, 46

Tapping in the Sugar Bush

“Grandpa,” Joey said, “I can only stay for a while this morning. I promised Brother Hurdy I’d help him tap some trees this afternoon. He’s trying to help out a friend who’s in the hospital. Brother Hurdy hasn’t done it for a long time, and I thought maybe you could give me some tips while I help you.”

Grandpa was glad Joey wanted to help him in his sugar bush, a woods consisting of sugar maples. He could use a good strong boy, and Joey was a good worker.

Joey followed Grandma into the kitchen to get the spouts and the pails that she had already washed and stacked for carrying. He made several trips from the kitchen to Grandpa’s stoneboat.

A stoneboat, which looks like a small raft, ordinarily is used to haul stones from fields so that crops can be planted there. When Joey saw Grandpa hitch his horse to the stoneboat, he asked, “How come you don’t use your tractor?”

“Well, Joey,” Grandpa answered, “Dolly is just right for this job. She doesn’t get mired in spring mud like my tractor. Besides, she needs the exercise.”

The day was getting warm fast as the sun rose higher, and the snow was melting on the dirt trail that led to the sugar bush. Joey walked beside Grandpa. He liked to be with him because Grandpa knew so many things. Whenever Joey asked questions, Grandpa would explain things so that Joey could understand them.

“How many years have you been tapping maple trees?” Joey asked.

“I started to help my father when I was about your age,” Grandpa said, “and I’m eighty-one now. But tapping trees was a lot different when I was a boy. For one thing, we didn’t have metal spouts and pails.”

“You didn’t? What did you use?”

“Sumac twigs for spouts and hollowed-out butternut logs to catch the sap,” Grandpa answered. “We made the spouts by pounding short twigs, about three-quarters of an inch thick, into bored holes. Then we sliced off the top third of the twig’s bark and took out the core. We hollowed out logs with an adz to make the pails. An adz is a hand tool with a sharp, curved blade,” he explained.

“How big were the log pails?” asked Joey.

“Oh, big enough to hold ten to twelve quarts of sap. We emptied them into wooden barrels on a stoneboat.”

“Wow!” exclaimed Joey. “Hollowing out logs must have been a lot of work.”

“It was,” agreed Grandpa. “Buying pails sure beats making them.”

“You must have bought new pails,” said Joey, pointing to the stacks of shiny pails on the stoneboat.

“No,” Grandpa said, “I’ve had them a long time.”

“How come they don’t have rusty spots like Brother Hurdy’s?” Joey asked. “He has to get new ones.”

Grandpa chuckled. “Your grandma gets credit for that. When the maple-tapping season is over, she always washes them and oils them before storing them away.”

When they reached the sugar bush, Grandpa asked Joey which he’d rather do—drill holes or pound in spouts. Joey said he wanted to learn to drill holes.

Handing him the drill, Grandpa said, “Be sure the trees you drill are at least a foot in diameter. Find the side with the most branches and roots, then bore a hole straight in an inch and a half deep about two feet above the ground. But don’t bore into any of last year’s tapholes.”

Joey found a tree that looked large enough, and he saw last year’s taphole on the side with the most branches and roots. Placing his drill bit a few inches away from the previous taphole, he asked, “How deep did you say?”

“An inch and a half.”

“Is that all?” Joey asked. “Brother Hurdy said he thought we were supposed to bore them four to five inches deep.”

“Sap travels just under the bark, so an inch and a half or so is deep enough,” Grandpa explained.

After a while Joey said, “This is great! It would have been a lot harder to bore deeper holes. I’ll have to tell Brother Hurdy.”

“It’s a lot easier on trees, too,” Grandpa said. “Deep tapholes leave brown scars in lumber. But when holes are shallow, scars tend to disappear as the tree grows.”

When Joey came to a large tree, he turned to Grandpa and asked, “Where should I bore in this tree?”

Glancing over at the tree, Grandpa answered, “Same place, on the side with the most branches and roots.”

“It’s so big, don’t you want to hang another pail on it?”

“No,” Grandpa said. “Just one. Trees need sap for their own use. They need it to stay healthy and to help them grow and mature.”

“Don’t you ever put more than one pail on a tree?” Joey asked.

“Only if it’s a lot larger tree than that one,” Grandpa answered, “and then only two.” Seeing Joey’s questioning face, he continued, “Oh, it may not hurt a tree to have two or even three pails for a season—or maybe even for three or four seasons. But you can spot a sugar bush that’s been overtapped if you see that the tops of the trees are dying.”

When Joey had to leave, he discovered that the stoneboat had no more empty pails in it. As Grandpa turned Dolly and the stoneboat around and started home, he said, “Thank you, Joey. You have been good help. You listen and you follow instructions well. I hope that what you’ve learned will help Brother Hurdy too.”

A pleased Joey looked up at Grandpa and said, “Thank you, Grandpa. I’m sure it will.”

Illustrated by Dick Brown