Just in case you are trying to reach me in the next couple weeks – I’ll probably be unable to respond to you as I’ll be out in the boonies of central Ontario. Frostpocket, if you’ve heard mention of it. Near Mikisew Provincial Park if you haven’t.
Frostpocket (click to embiggen)
Here’s a Google satellite Map of the area. There isn’t electricity, running water, nor an indoor toilet to be found on these 100 acres of mostly undeveloped land, so I’ll be a bit out of my comfort zone. I have a solar shower, if it is sunny enough to warm up, I may be able to take a shower every day or three. My dad and uncle have already arrived up there a couple days ago, presumedly smoothing over some of the roughest patches, but I won’t know the true status until I arrive. No matter, it will be fun to (almost) escape civilization for a brief moment.
I should be back, fully connected to the grid in about ten days if all goes well.
If you need to contact me more urgently, try the usual channels. In our hyper-connected world, even South River might have a WiFi enabled coffee shop! Or not. If you are waiting for me to make a move on Words With Friends, you might have to wait, AT&T’s international data plan is a real ripoff…
Reading this article in the NYT recently, made me think…
Forty years ago, Mr. Morse would snowshoe into the forest with his father to collect sap from galvanized buckets and load them onto a tractor. The farm has not changed much since then, but the winters have. So has the maple syrup ritual itself.
Scientists say the tapping season — the narrow window of freezing nights and daytime temperatures over 40 degrees needed to convert starch to sugar and get sap flowing — is on average five days shorter than it was 50 years ago. But technology developed over the past decade and improved in recent years offers maple farmers like Mr. Morse a way to offset the effects of climate change with high-tech tactics that are far from natural.
Today, five miles of pressurized blue tubing spider webs down the hillside at Morse Farm, pulling sap from thousands of trees and spitting it into tubs like an immense, inverse IV machine. Modern vacuum pumps are powerful enough to suck the air out of a stainless steel dairy tank and implode it, and they help producers pull in twice as much sap as before.
Forty years ago? That would be in the 1970s, and as it happened, I witnessed first hand such production at my family’s 100 acre spread called Frostpocket. I put out a call for some photos of it, and so far, have received three.
In the spring of 1974 George tapped a few maple trees around his house and made five gallons of maple syrup. His evaporator was an old-fashioned flat steel pan that had been given to him by Wilfred. The next year George surveyed the hillside between Randy’s house site and south of the log cabin and found places for 288 taps. That spring he had the help of Greg Sperry and Bie Engelen, who had wintered over in the cabin, and of Colleen, who was pregnant with Katie.
George placed the old flat pan outdoors near his house and carried the sap to the pan in the old fashioned way, in buckets. The first run of sap was on April 7 followed by runs on April 15 and 16, April 20 and 21 and on April 22 and 23. Colleen pulled a muscle while carrying buckets of sap through the deep snow and her doctor ordered her to stop. She devoted her time to curing and smoking last year’s hams and starting tomato plants for the garden while George and Bie continued working in the bush until the weather turned warm and the sap stopped running. George made 25 gallons of syrup that year, much of which was amber or dark. George sold some of the syrup and used the rest at home as a sweetener. In the fall of 1975 a shed was built in the flats below the log cabin and the evaporator pan moved there. A large quantity of standing dead balsam fir trees were cut from the edges of the clearing and stacked near the shed for use as firewood the following spring.
Frostpocket Maple Syrup – Washing the hoses [scanned from a print, modestly tweaked in Photoshop]
Per my dad: “homemade tubing washer, taken about 1978.”
The eroded granite hills of the Eagle Lake Uplands are an ideal environment for the rock or sugar maple and the sugar maple is the dominant tree on the stony hilltops of Machar Township. The first generation of pioneers placed a high value on maple sugar and brought sugaring off equipment with them when they settled the township in the 1880s. By the 1970s there were half dozen maple syrup producers in the Uplands community.
Frostpocket Maple Syrup – remnants [scanned from a photo print, and slightly tweaked in Photoshop]
The boiler where we made maple syrup, after about ten years of neglect.
For the 1977 sugar season, George designed a system of dump stations to reduce the effort needed to collect the sap. Gathering the sap from the sap buckets and hauling it to the evaporator is the most laborious part of making maple syrup. At least once a day when the sap is running, every bucket has to be emptied and the sap delivered to the evaporator and boiled to syrup as quickly as possible. On a warm day any delay might result in a finished product that is “dark”.
George Shovelling Snow – Frostpocket
If the sap is left in the buckets overnight and the temperature stays warm throughout the night the sap may begin to ferment and will spoil. The spoiled sap can still be boiled into syrup but is will be very dark, have an after taste and be difficult or impossible to sell. Furthermore the spoiled sap will contaminate the buckets, tubing and storage tanks making any syrup produced thereafter more likely to be dark.
Most modern sugar bushes use a system of tubes that moves the sap directly from each tap to the evaporator house without the use of buckets. In January or February 1977 George and Philip set up 22 dump stations connected by black plastic PVC tubing to one of two storage tanks. One storage tank was mounted next to the evaporator in the sugarhouse. The other was a transfer tank located in a low spot between the log cabin and George’s house.
The men used a gas-driven gear pump to move the sap from the transfer tank to the storage tank in the sugarhouse. The sap was collected from the buckets hanging from each tap in the usual way but instead of carrying the sap to the evaporator, it was carried to the nearest dump station. From the dump station the sap flowed by gravity through the tubing to one of the storage tanks. Whenever the storage tank was partially full, George would build a fire under the evaporator and began to boil the sap into syrup. As the level in the evaporator dropped he would open a valve to move sap from the storage tank into the evaporator.
The old flat evaporator made syrup in batches. When all of the syrup in the pan was ready, George poured the finished syrup into retail containers and then sealed the cans. In 1977 he purchased a more modern evaporator that had partitions built into it. The sap continuously entered at one end of the pan and moved slowly to the other end where it was taken off as syrup.
George always made the syrup while Philip and Debbie emptied the sap buckets and carried the sap to the dump stations. When the storage tank was near empty the sap in the transfer tank was pumped over to the storage tank and George continued to make syrup until both tanks were empty. After a good run the evaporator was kept boiling until late into the night.
Maple syrup season was always my favorite time of year as a kid: spring meant snow was beginning to melt, plus there was lot of opportunity to play in mud as I walked the mile home from where the school bus dropped me off. I didn’t participate much in the actual maple harvesting process, but it does have an evocative smell which I can still recall after all these intervening years.
Sitting on Morley Yan’s Motorcycle on 33 Baldwin St, Toronto, June 1979
When I was a child, during summers and around Christmas (and at various other times), we lived at the Ragnarokr Leather shop Co-op on 33 Baldwin Street, aka the Ragnarokr Cordwainery. For some reason1 I was trying to recall all the businesses located on that block. Here’s what I came up with:
A Chinese bakery, the name of which I cannot recall. Yung Sing Pastry Shop! That’s it. I don’t remember eating sweets so much from there as much as I recall eating stuffed pork buns, or various savory meat pastries.
A Chinese poultry shop, name forgotten. I don’t believe I ever went inside here, but they shared an alley with us, so walking by this place was always pungent, or worse. They had hanging fowls in the front window.
Hong Kong Grocery2 – a small store with basic foods and sundries. I recall being sent there to pick up items for meals – milk, or eggs, or whatever. The proprietor was a genial man – I recall him beaming at me as I came in running some errand or another for my mother. There was another grocery on the other side of the street, but I don’t recall going there often, unless with friends to buy candy. My uncle adds:
The grocery store was called Nik’s at first and then was sold to a Chinese guy from Honduras. He spoke Spanish. His first store was in a mining town in Honduras. When the gold ran out he moved to Toronto.
The Yellow Ford Truck – a clothing store (?) run by like minded American exiles. It might have been a head shop, but to be honest, I don’t really remember much about it. Perhaps children were not welcomed because of the kind of goods that were sold there.
Morningstar Trading Company– a clothing store specializing in Indian and Southeast Asian imports. I do remember hanging out here quite a bit. I guess it is still around in one form or another, though I don’t know if it is owned by the same principals.
Mandel’s Creamery – delicious Jewish dairy and cheese monger; fresh made cream cheese is what I primarily remember. This was also a place I would get sent to by my mother when she needed something. I think still around, though in a different location.
John Philips’ Baldwin Street Gallery – sadly, John Philips passed away recently, though not before my folks bought some nice prints from his extensive archive. I wish I could have met him as an adult, he probably would have given me some good photo tips.
Letki Designs – a jewelry store. I don’t recall too much about this place, other than my mom’s wedding band came from here, and my aunt Megan lived as an au pair3 briefly.
The Cosmic Egg – another clothing store, I think. Perhaps they sold surplus goods as well.
There were also two places right on the adjacent block of McCaul Street – Silverstein’s Bakery, and the Whole Earth Food store. Both of these places evoke smell memories, even after all this time. I was frequently sent to pick up fresh rolls or a loaf of rye bread from Silverstein’s, and Whole Earth had those big buckets of freshly ground nut butters and bins of brown rice and so forth.
As far as aided recall, a lot of the Baldwin Village stores are listed here, but where’s the fun in that? Some of those I truly do not remember, like the Red Morning Communist Party, or Children of God / Imperial Pig, Amaranth-Pentacle or even the Sissler Gallery, which might have been right next door. I sort of remember Java Blues, a coffee shop that had a little sidewalk cafe adjunct.
Looking back, that stretch of Baldwin was pretty dense – you certainly didn’t need a car. I haven’t visited Baldwin Street since 1994 – I wonder how much remains the same? Not much I presume.