Ice Out!

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Snowdrops and daffodils. Robins and geese. Lambs and maple sap running and yellow-green buds on the weeping willow.

All lovely signs of spring.

Of all the signs that winter is over, though, one makes me happiest, makes my heart soar and loosens the tensions in my upper back.

And that is when the ice goes out of our bay. Finally. It is not the first sign of spring, by any means, but it is, for me, the most welcome.

In the late autumn, it seems the ice comes in quickly. One day the water will be slushy and, seemingly the next day, ice fishers will be out drilling holes and catching perch.

But once it’s formed that ice stays and stays . . . and stays.

The larger sections of Lake Champlain, areas known around here as the “broad lake,” might stay open all winter. But our little bay always freezes and for months we miss the sounds of water and the sight of water birds and any sign of movement.

This year, the ice held on in Monty’s Bay until yesterday.

In the morning, solid ice covered the entire bay.

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But the temperatures reached 50F, we’d had a good bit of rain, and the winds were gusting to 50 miles an hour, from just the right direction.

At 4 in the afternoon, I could see a dark band across the way—and movement.

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The band grew and widened, and water flowed near our seawall.

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By 7, three hours after I saw the first band, the ice was almost completely gone—big floes moving and breaking up.

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I could see birds wheeling above the open water and waves forming and movement. That’s the difference—there’s movement, where there had been none for months.

It will be a good while before we see kingfishers or sailboats or children playing in these waters. But that isn’t the point.

The point is, it’s official—spring is here!

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One day–what a difference!!

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Your Spring, My Spring

You.

Yes, you, with your signs of spring. With your hellebores and your hyacinths and all that green and gold, and those cherry blossoms. And those lambs!

Well, we have signs of spring, too, you know.

We have dirty snow and lots of leftover sand on the roads, left by road crews to get us through the winter. We have the teensiest of buds on a few shrubs. We’ve had four snow-free days in a row!

But we also have ice that’s finally melting on the bay. We have moving water for the first time in months!

It'll all break up soon

It’ll all break up soon

We have cats, luxuriating on warm flagstones, feeling frisky, spring in their blood.

Sweet Beau in the sun

Sweet Beau in the sun

We have maple sap dripping into metal buckets, all along the roadsides.

Looking down the barrel of the spile, at a little drop of sap!

Looking down the barrel of the spile, at a little drop of sap!

And we have the annual pancake breakfast, with family and neighbors, shucking off wool jackets, slathering on the maple syrup, and lingering in the bright sunshine of a perfect spring day.

Finally . . . spring. Always worth the wait.

Spring Tradition: The Pancake Breakfast

IMG_6492In my continuing celebration of spring and all things maple, we spent yesterday morning at a very special place—a pancake breakfast!

My cousins own and operate a sugarhouse that has been going strong for three generations. For 44 (!) springs, they have worked with the local square dance club to host an all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast that is a tradition for people all over the North Country.

IMG_6488 When we arrive, the rural road is lined with cars and trucks, and folks of all ages are streaming toward the sugarhouse and the smell of pancakes. IMG_6538

We pass by an avenue of ancient maples wearing their battered sap buckets; I like the contrast of this symbol of spring and rebirth and newness contrasted with the cemetery beyond.

IMG_6488 - Version 2 IMG_6481It’s cold and rainy outside but the inside of the sugarhouse is warm and steamy and noisy. We greet family members and neighbors get caught up with neighbors.

IMG_6490The evaporator dominates the scene inside—this is where the syrup is made. The process needs attending to, hence the rockers, to provide the tenders with comfort and companionship.

IMG_6496 IMG_6493A huge mural by the family artist honors the way the sap was traditionally collected.IMG_6501

Today, though, it’s all about the food.

Pancakes and sausages are really only a vehicle for maple syrup.

IMG_6514Young runners keep the pancakes coming.

IMG_6507Almost no one leaves without getting some syrup or maple sugar or maple butter to take home.

IMG_6519The sugarhouse also serves as a museum of sorts, with lovely old artifacts of the history of sugaring down.

This fragment of an old maple shows signs of having been tapped many times over many, many years.IMG_6525

We eat our pancakes, we visit with relatives, we commiserate about the winter, we welcome spring.

The pancake breakfast is over and we immediately begin to look forward to next year!

 

 

Making Maple

maple article - Version 3My father died when I was seventeen. I have lots of old photos of him but this one, published in the local newspaper over 50 years ago, is one of my favorites. In it, he’s drawing off maple syrup from the evaporator on our farm.

My father was a farmer. He worked the farm with my grandfather, on land the family had been on since the late 1700s. Like many farmers he also drove a school bus, and then he went on to hold an administrative position in the school system and to serve as town supervisor.

Farmers may epitomize the concept of “hands at home,” growing crops and tending animals, fixing machinery and building what needs to be built. Highly self-reliant, with lives governed by milking times and the changing seasons, family farmers have always been at the center of what it means to be American.

My father was a dairy farmer; my sister and I didn’t like the milk we got at school or in restaurants because it didn’t taste like “Dad’s milk”!

But, of all the things he made, we liked the maple syrup best! For a short, intense period in early spring, when the temperatures are above freezing during the day but fall back below freezing at night AND before the tree get buds, many North Country farmers add “sugaring down” to their list of daily chores.

According to the article that accompanied this photo, my father hung about 700 buckets on sugar maple trees on our land. From these he collected upwards of 600 gallons of maple sap that would’ve been boiled down to produce about 150 gallons of maple syrup. He sold much of this locally.

But none of that mattered to us kids. For us, the process meant sweet sips of the thin sap straight from the tree and lots of lovely maple syrup on our pancakes!

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Spring Senses: The Sound of Sap

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photo by Jim Sorbie

Does your favorite sign of spring make a sound? Mine does, and the sound is, “drip tunk, drip tunk, drip splish, drip splash.”

That’s the sound of maple sap hitting the bottom of a sap bucket.

It’s maple season in the North Country of upstate New York. The trees are tapped and the sap is running—it’s a fleeting, special time of year.

We had a sugarbush (that’s North Country talk for a maple syrup production farm) on our farm when I was a kid, so many of my memories revolve around “sugaring down.”

As you may know, it takes something like 40-45 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup. The sap is collected from taps in sugar maple trees and brought to a specially-designed sugarhouse, put in a specially-designed evaporator, and boiled down until it reaches a specially-designed syrupy goodness.

That boiling takes a long time, with a lot of tending of the fire that fuels the evaporator. While this tending needs to be constant, I especially remember my father and grandfather watching the fire in the evenings, after dinner and after all the other farm chores were done.

And I remember myself at 5 or 6 years old, sitting quietly in a dim corner of the warm, steamy, sweet-smelling sugarhouse. I sat and listened to the voices of the men. I could see the glow of lights from the farmhouse where my mother and grandmother worked to clean up from dinner. I can remember feeling so secure; everything was perfect in my world.

Is it any wonder the sound of sap dripping is etched in my memory?