OUTDOOR TALES: Yo-yo weather is good for syrup-making

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Outdoor Tales

By Phil Junker

The numbers aren’t large, but there still are people who make maple syrup. It’s tasty, a sign of spring, and a lot of work.

Maple syrup time is when the wonderful aroma of cooking syrup wafts its way down the valleys from sugar camp hills.

Making maple syrup is almost a lost art. Most people who make the sweet, tasty syrup in this part of the country do it for the enjoyment and make enough to earn a few bucks and provide a supply for family and friends.

Kentucky is in the southern range of maple syrup country. North-Central Indiana and Ohio produces more syrup than this area, and Vermont claims to be the maple syrup capital of the country.

Federal Grove maple syrup near Auburn, in Logan County, west of Bowling Green, is believed to be one of the southernmost syrup producers. Its website says it also has a restaurant and a bed and breakfast.

Maple syrup is a sure sign spring is just around the corner. It takes freezing nighttime temperatures, followed by days consistently above freezing to get the maple sap “running.” If the temperature remains below or above freezing, the sap doesn’t run.

The sap must be collected from hard maple trees. It usually is collected in buckets and then transported to a central cooking location. Some larger commercial operations use plastic tubing and let gravity flow the syrup to collection points.

Further north, where the temperature differences in late February and early March are more dramatic, it takes less sugar water to make syrup. Either place, it is hard work. On average, it takes about 40 gallons of collected water to produce a cooked-down gallon of syrup. 

My friend Doyle Coultas, who used to cook syrup in Perry County of Southern Indiana, says it usually takes nearly 50 gallons in this area to produce a gallon of syrup. In some northern climates, 30 gallons of water will do the trick.

After the water is collected, it is cooked in a flat pan over a wood fire. It takes a lot of cooking — hours of cooking, giving syrup makers plenty of time for story swapping. And the warmth of the fire and wonderful maple smell of the bubbling water is a delight, especially on a cold, late winter day.

The origin of maple syrup making goes back to the Native Americans, before the white man came here from Europe. According to one legend, it was started by accident by the wife of an Iroquois chief named Woksis.

The chief came in from a hard day hunting in the woods during early March and stuck his tomahawk in a maple tree. The next day, when he went out hunting again, he pulled the tomahawk from the tree, leaving a gash.

Late in the day, his wife needed water to cook the chief’s dinner. When she went out to get a pot for water, she noticed that it was sitting by accident under the gash Woksis left in the tree and had nearly filled with maple water. Rather than making a trip to the creek, she just used the water in the pot.

When Woksis returned home he could smell the pleasant aroma from the water that by that time had cooked down into tasty syrup. He liked what his wife had cooked, and maple syrup became a native treat. Well, so goes the tale.

If you haven’t visited a maple camp, it is worth a trip. Some sell their syrup, and they might even offer a cup of sassafras tea. You can check with your local county agent or visitor’s bureau to see if there is one in the area.


Contact outdoors writer Phil Junker via e-mail at outdoorscribe@yahoo.com or check out his blog at outdoorscribe.blogspot.com. Junker’s column usually appears in the Wednesday or Sunday issue.