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      March 21: Maple Syrup Time

      The iconic symbol of the season--a bucket attached to a spigot driven into a maple tree. Now, modern operations use tubes and pumps to collect sap.

      The annual spring ritual is just beginning over Upper Michigan. It is maple syrup time; or, to be more precise, maple sap collecting time. The production of maple sugar is the oldest agricultural enterprise in Michigan. Native Americans began collecting maple sap and boiling it into sugar hundreds of years ago. Alexander Henry, who sojourned in the Lake Superior region between 1760 and 1776, wrote about the sugaring process. He accompanied townspeople of the village of Sault Ste. Marie into the woods. The first several days were spent setting up the sugaring operation. Then for the next few weeks sap was gathered and turned into maple sugar or syrup. While the men did some hunting and fishing, most of the food supply was sugar from the maple tree. If there was any dispute about whether maple sugar could sustain a human, Henry put the argument to rest. He wrote that he had seen Indians live wholly off maple sugar and â??and become fat.â??

      Today, a system of tubing and pumps pulls the nectar into huge holding tanks where it is then pumped into stainless steel troughs for boiling. One thing that has not changed in over 200 years is maple syrup productionâ??s total dependency on the weather. Similar to the 1760s, present-day sugaring begins around or just before the equinox, approximately March 21.

      â??The rule of thumb here in our part of the U.P., on the Lake Superior side of the watershed, has been sometime shortly after the 20th,â?? says Mike McCollum, who has owned and operated the Rock River Sugar Bush in Alger County . â??South would be earlier, probably about a week or so.â??

      Once the trees are tapped, the operation is at the complete mercy of the weather. â??Some of the best years weâ??ve had,â?? explains McCollum, â??have been where you have a more moderate warm-up...where spring comes in more normally. By that, I mean temperatures in the 40s during the day and 20s at night. The worst years are when it warms up into the 60s and 70s early in April and lasts for ten-day periods. That just absolutely shuts you down.â??

      McCollum says cold nights â??resetâ?? the trees by stopping the sap flow. Then it starts over again the next day as it warms up.

      Last year, it warmed up and never cooled back. The season was shortened to just a couple of days and ended just after St. Pattyâ??s Day. In fact, I got an email from an area syrup producer who said he did not even tap last year. Another tapped quickly and got about 25 percent of normal production. The general rule of thumb according to one producer is that once the peepers start singing in the swamps, the sap collecting season is over. Again, that happened earlier than ever last year.

      It looks like this weekend the sap may start to run some. Temperatures should pop above freezing for a while in the afternoons and drop below freezing at night. At this point, it looks like a more normal season is on the way.