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Maple

03/16/07 12:00AM By Willem Lange
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(HOST) Commentator Willem Lange is celebrating an age-old New England tradition.

(LANGE) Nobody will ever know who invented the snowshoe, the birch-bark canoe, bows and arrows, or maple sugar. People back then didn't patent their inventions. They just passed them on.

About a mile from our hunting camp in the Adirondacks lie the remains of an old sugar camp. They're in a rough mountain valley beside a slow seep of icy water. Nobody goes there anymore except for members of our camp. You have to know where to look for it, and it always surprises you: a huge, cracked iron kettle, like a Galapagos tortoise, lying in the leaves.

Each spring for many years an old-timer named Jim Hays trekked up into that isolated valley to tap the maples and boil down the sap for sugar. He must have had a shanty somewhere, and a covered wood pile, but not a trace remains that I've been able to find . . . just the lonely kettle.

An early explorer mentioned in 1609 that native Americans were boiling sweet sap by dropping hot rocks into birch-bark containers. Nobody knows how it began. Some credit an Indian chief who sank a tomahawk into a tree. That sounds a little thin. It was probably some kid who discovered the sweet brown icicles hanging down from a wounded sugar maple on a cold morning. When the first colonists arrived, the Indians were cutting V-shaped slashes in tree trunks and funneling the sap into troughs at the foot.

The Indians didn't use syrup. They had no way of storing or transporting it. Instead, they boiled it down until they could make cakes of it. Then they could either pound it into granular sugar or dissolve it into syrup in hot water. We still do that ourselves on canoe trips to save weight - and also because you haven't tasted calamity until you've had a half-gallon of syrup leak inside a big waterproof food bag.

The colonists, of course, had iron pots, the first real innovation in boiling. Then somebody figured out that the slashes in the bark weren't efficient, and came up with the idea of boring a hole and inserting a spile with a bucket beneath it. Spiles were made by pushing and pulling out the cores of twigs of willow, sumac, or popple.

Soon the big kettles were replaced by flat metal pans with larger areas for both heating and evaporation. Wooden buckets were replaced by soldered metal buckets. Then some genius invented the "evaporator." Partitions in the pan directed sap flow in a mazelike pattern from the intake to the spigot where the syrup was drawn off. It's still used in sugar houses today.

Other innovations continue. Plastic tubing eliminates plowing through the woods with a collecting tank; reverse osmosis concentrates the sugar before boiling. But the image of old Jim Hays, out there alone in that high valley in late winter with his horse, tending the kettle as night falls and the fire lights his face and warms one side of him...as the song goes, what's lost is lost and gone forever.

This is Willem Lange up in Orford, New Hampshire. I gotta get back to work.

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