Today’s post is all about tapping maple trees! For part 1 of the series, check out Sap Facts.
To tap, we drill a hole about two inches deep into the side of the maple tree and fill it with a spile. The size of the tree determines how many taps can be put on it in one season. A young, small tree will have one or two, while an old, large tree can have three or even four.
We start tapping when it’s still cold and snowy out, usually in late January and into February, so we’re ready for any spring thaws. Of course, that isn’t an exact science. We’ve missed the first few thaws
almost every year on several occasions.
When it’s not too windy, my dad and his friends trek out into our sap bush and begin the process of tapping each tree. It takes several days of hard work to complete all the tapping. Even on the best days they’re usually only able to do a few hundred.
The Traditional Way
In the past, trees were tapped with a hand drill and had a spile hammered in to direct the sap. The spiles have a hook on the bottom for holding a metal bucket that fills throughout the day. There’s a lid that slides partially over the top to keep unwanted branches and animals out.
During good sap weather, the buckets had to be emptied each day, and the sap was carted to the sap house for boiling.
My grandfather remembers tapping maple trees this way with his parents and siblings in the ’40s and ’50s. They had a sap house in the woods with them so they didn’t have to bring the sap so far. Its foundation is still there in the sap bush!
We still have many sap buckets around the farm. We put them on the trees near our house for the real sap tasting experience.
New equipment has improved the tapping and gathering experience over time. Rather than individual buckets, we buy yards of plastic maple tubing that we string throughout the sap bush. They are all various sizes and attach to each other to form a giant maple spider web.
The spiles are also made of plastic and get attached to two or three foot sections of line, forming what my dad calls “drops.” The drops feed into the main lines once they’re attached to the tree.
I have no idea why they’re called drops, but they take a very long time to make and only last a year or two before needing replacement. He spends many winter evenings making them while he watches terrible British sci-fi shows.
The longer tubes connecting the trees and sections get carted up the hill whole or are unfurled along the way. Once they’re in place, the widest tubes are suspended with a strong wire, which keeps them from sinking. If they sink too much with sap in them, it doesn’t drain properly.
Since all the maple trees are on a hill, gravity alone can pull the sap in the lines to the bottom. In the early part of the season, they drain out any junk that may have collected in the lines during the past year. My dad checks over the lines while they drain to make sure there are no broken lines or blockages. For some reason, squirrels and other rodents like to chew through the smaller tubes and ruin them. Deer will also run through and break them.
Once the lines are clear and have minimal leaks, the sap gets collected in a tank at the bottom.
More on that next week!