Amidst the mud and maple trees

“The woodsman’s yoga,” says Angus Beal ’03.

He swings the maul down upon the log and splits it, rending it in two with a splintering crack. We’re at the Maple Fest in Hopkins Memorial Forest, an annual celebration of the venerable practice of tapping maple sap and turning it into syrup. Beal is not the only one trying his hand at splitting logs; a steady trickle of people find their way to the sylvan arena which serves as a venue for the dismemberment of former tree trunks. Michelle Ruby ’02, and Melissa Purdy ’02 oversee this graveyard of once-proud logs; Michelle told me that aside from the splitting’s utilitarian purpose of providing fuel for the fires which boil the sap into syrup, it’s also “an awfully good way” to get rid of frustration. Seeing these logs being split, with snow dropping out of the cold March sky and in the background, bilious clouds of sap-steam drifting up from the sugar-shack, it’s possible for one to believe that one has been removed from this time.

Despite this occasional whiff of timelessness, syruping in Hopkins Forest does have a history. Hopkins has been the site of syruping since the early 1980s at least, said Drew Jones, the manager of the Williams-owned tract of woodland. Though there may have been more primitive “backyard” style operations in place before that, the sugar shack now in place was built in the mid-1980s by a Williams student who neglected his spring classes in favor of the more rugged – and apparently more edifying – task of constructing a sugar shack. This shack is the end point for the sap gathered in the tall and leafless maples of Hopkins; here, the weak-tasting sugar water becomes the mighty liquid we all know and love – maple syrup.

To observe the process at its start, I wandered over to Nick Nelson ’03, who was supervising the tapping of the raw sap from the maples. Attached to each tree was a covered metal bucket, into which the sap dripped with sluggish timidity. The rate of dripping is dependent on temperature, Nelson told me. When it’s cold (as it was last Sunday ), a four gallon bucket can take two to three days to fill, whereas in warmer, milder weather, those same four gallons can be filled in a single day. This may seem like a lot of sap, but in reality – or, as far as syrup is concerned – it’s hardly any at all: a full 40 gallons of sap are required to make just one gallon of syrup.

The time of year is also important, Nelson said. Late winter and early spring are prime syrup season because the tree, in preparation for the glory of leaves that will soon adorn its boughs, summons its reserves of sugar from its lower portion, sending sugar-rich sap up the trunk and to the limbs, courtesy of a concentration gradient, in order to nourish the incipient buds. This upward flow of sap is tapped by syrup makers, providing the raw material for maple syrup.

The process of converting the sap, with a relatively low sugar content (2.5 percent, on average) to syrup (65 percent sugar) takes place in the sugar shack. This pleasant little building is home to a complex series of tanks and pipes that boil off the water in the sap and produce syrup. It’s a steam-filled place, full of the gentle smell of sugary water vapor. Tom Merrill, a local resident, along with Sandy Brown, technical assistant for Environmental Studies here at Williams, ran the apparatus that produced the syrup on Sunday. Sap, Tom told me, boils at 219 degrees Fahrenheit, several degrees above the boiling point of water due to the dissolved sugar. A wood-burning stove sat under the tanks, producing the energy needed for the boiling to take place. A pipe ran along the wall which emptied sap into the tanks; this pipe brings sap down to the tanks from a 300 gallon holding tank up the hill, into which the accumulated extractions from the trees are emptied. At the end of this contraption a faucet hangs over a jug, the eventual destination of the syrup.

Far inferior in efficiency to the sugar shack’s panoply of tanks and pipes, but still possessing a distinct charm of its own, is the old-fashioned method of making maple syrup, demonstrated for me by Galen Holt ’04: a metal kettle full of sap is suspended over an open fire and allowed to boil. That’s it, and in terms of simplicity and accessibility, it’s a method that can’t be beat. However, it’s simply too inefficient for any commercial application.

Not all of the labor necessary for making maple syrup is supplied by inanimate heat or animate trees; much of it involves labor of the most human sort.

“There are five gallons of syrup that we carry,” said Julia Rosen ’05, who works in Hopkins Forest. With a gallon weighing roughly eight pounds, carrying this amount of syrup for any length of time can’t be easy. Rosen was upbeat, though. It’s a fun job, she told me. Plus you get free samples of syrup.

The cold weather and frequent snow squalls lowered the turnout for this year’s Maple Fest; the hardy and the brave, though, still managed to make it.

“We went to the Fall Fest [in Hopkins Forest] and enjoyed it so very much,” said Kelly Morgen ’05 and Lucy Thiboutot ’05. Morgen and Thiboutot decided, based on their prior positive experience with the Fall Fest, that the Maple Fest would be a good idea. Besides that, they said, they had a sugar shack this time.

It was not only Williams students in attendance. For Joseph Kurley and Theresa Marby of Adams, the Hopkins Forest Maple Fest was something of a surprise.

“We didn’t even know this was here,” said Kurley, adding that this was his and Marby’s first time attending the Maple Fest.

As the afternoon wore on and the snow picked up, I decided the time to head back to Williams was nigh. While we waited for the Outing Club van at what could be termed the outdoor equivalent of a lobby – centered around a grassy space near a bottling device and a table set up to sell syrup – Jonathan Landsman ’05 decided to take advantage of the fiddle music being blared from a nearby stereo and led an impromptu contra dance, gathering the few loiterers standing around into a moving human circle. And suddenly, in the midst of the whirling dancers and the ageless fiddling, with the kettle boiling over the flames just a few feet away and the snow falling insistently down, I really could have been in another century – at least for a moment.