Monday, March 21, 2011

A Love Affair with Sugarin'

Lots of Syrup

Guest blogger today, my Dad, Joe Sheehan! As you'll see, he's pretty into making maple syrup. He'd been consumed with it ever since he began last year. He loves talking about 'sugarin' and people love to listen to him, so I thought I'd let him ham it up here on BNB. Oh, and I was fortunate enough to join him for a day in the field and took some pictures of the gathering. Take it away, Pops!

Mountain Man

Daniel has asked me to share my experience with sugarin’, the name given to the process of changing the sap from sugar maple trees into delicious maple syrup (we hope). It is a fairly straight forward procedure:
  1. During February we install spouts/spiles in and buckets on designated sugar maple trees
  2. As soon as the sap starts to run into the buckets we collect the sap on very regular intervals. The amount of sap collected will vary depending on the weather, the tree, location of the buckets and other variables.
  3. We bring the sap to the location where it will be evaporated/boiled down to syrup. If the sap has a 2% sugar content, it will take approximately forty three gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.
The bounty can vary significantly year to year. 2010 yielded 30% to 50% less than previous years. 2011 has been possibly the best in the last 15 years according to one expert in the field. For a goal orientated person like myself who developed a pre-season list of those with whom I wanted to share “the amber liquid gold”, such fluctuations can be nothing but frustrating. In the best of all worlds I want to go with the flow and be grateful with whatever I get. Now there might be an achievable goal.

Buckets #1

For enjoyable participation in sugarin’ it’s helpful to love the outdoors, physical work and pleasant surprises (the amount of sap in the bucket). A farmer friend shared with me that passion for the experience, patience and flexibility are also very important. Full disclosure: I rank high on everything but patience and flexibility. I am, however, a 75 year old work-in-progress so I think there is still hope for me. Daniel’s hiking advice to me holds true for sugarin’, “Small steps will get you there, Dad.”

Dad pouring

I bring to sugarin’ a great love of the outdoors. In the 60’s I was introduced me to the majesty of the White Mountains in New Hampshire. On their tops I would stand with outstretched arms and say with unintended arrogance, “I am making articulate the inarticulate praise of nature.” For a long time now I have come to realize that nature does not need a spokesperson. Its awesome beauty, sometimes a terrible beauty, speaks for itself.


Hard work is part and parcel of sugarin’s DNA. We pour the sap from the galvanized pails into five gallon buckets that we then carry to our car trunks and backseats. One five gallon pail of sap weighs forty lbs. Carrying two full pails (eighty lbs.) at a time can have a positive impact on one’s body. For a few weeks each year I can claim that I am Charles Atlas. I’m sure it is all tied into some kind of macho pride. What the hell. I can live with a little bit of that.

Sunny and Foamy

Surprises are woven into every sap gathering experience. You never know how much sap will be in each bucket. Three pails on the same tree can give very different yields, i.e., an inch of sap, one gallon, or overflowing the brim. When I share this information with my wife Margot she says, “Joe, it sounds as though you are describing the excitement of a child at Christmas opening presents; not knowing what is inside.”

In the backseat

Two great mentors have guided me through the joys and a few disappointments of my two sugarin’ years. In 2010 Joe Schaefer, a friend of fifty five years, welcomed my inexperienced help in his Connecticut shoreline sugarin’ project. A number of years ago with characteristic entrepreneurial spirit Joe began sugarin’. His maple trees were scattered in both rural and urban settings. Very generously his shared his extensive knowledge with me. Most importantly he shared his contagious and passionate love for sugarin’.

Joe's operation

The Boiling

In 2011 another great mentor came into my life, Loren Moody, a thirty year veteran of sugarin’ with 1400 taps this year. Loren is a professional who markets his syrup throughout CT. A wiry man with a ready twinkle in his eyes he shared with me the lore of the field, gathered and treasured from so many years experience. I will always remember his words the first time I met him. “The best thing about sugarin’, Joe, is that it’s fun.”

Loren's Shack


For me, the great truth sugarin’ has taught is that you cannot rush nature. It has its own pace. We cannot impose our timetable on it. As a planner I am too often over-invested in control. Sugarin’ is totally dependent on nature’s cold nights and warm days. We cannot make that happen. It took me well into this second year of sugaring to ever so slowly accept this fact. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Adopt the pace of nature. Her secret is patience.” If you do, greater joy comes with it. ‘Go with the flow’ are words made for sugarin’.


Thanks Dad! Just wanted to note that it was a great experience gathering on that windy winter day. There is something magical when you witness sap dripping out from the taps and a full bucket beneath. Then considering that the sap is basically the blood of the tree, the contents of that bucket becomes precious. Each splash spilled (which I did considerably) was heartbreaking. And hard work indeed! I was so exhausted by the end of the day. Napped hard on my parent's sofa. I'm still amazed that Dad did this every day straight for 3+ weeks...Oof!


  1. Thanks Spread Eagle! What a lovely mix of pride and humility in sharing your experience. I'd like to try sugarin'! But I will also settle for eating pancakes with lots of syrup.

  2. Anonymous3/30/2011

    Heart warming. Joe is amazing. BTW, you have to select a profile to post and none seem to work for me. You must change that.


  3. (If you're wondering, my Dad's trail name is Spread Eagle.)

  4. Leila, try posting under name. Otherwise, shed your employer's shackles and get cozy with the google!