Réné Bosman checks one of his taps last week, at Providence Point.
LANARK HIGHLANDS - To the untrained eye, it may look like Vernon Wheeler
is distracted. Really, he is anything but.
In the moist warmth of the evaporator room at Wheeler’s Pancake House and Sugar
Camp, Wheeler paces in and around equipment buried in steam, keeping his eye on
each of the three evaporators. His eyes move constantly, a quick glance at a
thermometer telling him volumes about the product slowly bubbling within each
behemoth. After 55 years in the maple syrup business, he knows what to look for.
His eyes flit to the thermometers, to the boiler, to the site levels on each
evaporator. He also keeps an eye on the dumping station that houses the 6,000-gallon
Wheeler started boiling the sap last Thursday as evident from the
sweet-smelling steam that was rolling and billowing out of the top of the
building that houses three large evaporators Thursday. Last year, Wheelers made
more than 30,000 litres of syrup, derived from the sap collected by more than
Wheeler, who has been producing syrup for 55 years and now helps his children
carry on the tradition, said he's been familiar with the process since he was a
little boy. He and his family moved to the area from Renfrew when he was six
years old and started to create a sustainable sugar bush almost immediately.
“I made a vow to myself that I’d never be a sugar maker,” he said, noting
instead that he originally worked as a logger. “When I was logging, it was easy
to see when the sap started running and my blood would go crazy,” he said.
Eventually, he gave in and settled down in McDonalds Corners to make a livelihood
surrounding what he knew he couldn’t walk away from. In the late 1970s, he and
his family started production in the bush they currently use.
Although the technology surrounding sugar making
has changed drastically since he started in the business, he notes two main
changes that also stand out to him, the first of which is the use of the health
spout. The family started using the special spout for the trees after the ice
storm hit the area in 1998. Unlike the former tap, which caused a larger hole
in the tree, the new spout is narrower and results in less stress being put on
the tree itself. The tubing system put in place in the 1960s was also a huge
improvement, he said.
Now, 90 per cent of the syrup Wheeler's product goes out the door from their
own location or on top of the fare from the pancake house. "Since we built
the pancake house 15 years ago, we do very little wholesaling anymore," he
Down the road at Temple’s Sugar Camp in Ferguson’s Falls, Charles
Temple was prepared for the challenge of an early season.
With 5,500 taps at his farm in McDonalds Corners
and an additional 5,000 at the site of the restaurant, Temple said, though the sap
started flowing early this year, it’s not an unusual situation to be in.
With almost 40 years under his belt, he said the
rule of thumb is that it will start flowing between March 10 and 20, when the
nights stay cool, but the temperature rises during the day.
"This year it’s early, but not unheard
of," he said.
Although he knows the idiosyncrasies of the business by now, he wasn't always
interested in making a career from the stuff that comes from trees.
"I got into this by accident," he
said. His family had a hobby farm in Fallbrook and out of the blue in the early
1970s, he decided to try his hand at making syrup. It snowballed from there,
until it became a large part of his life with an operation in McDonalds Corners
and near Fergusons
Falls that make about
13,000 litres of syrup a year.
the property the sugar house and restaurant now stand on in 2001. The
restaurant opened in 2007. He still runs his wholesale and production operation
out of his McDonalds Corners location, but took on the restaurant to expand the
reach of his maple syrup business.
"The key is trying to explore ways to make
maple syrup continually interesting," he said.
To that end, he has also started hosting weddings at the restaurant during the
syrup off-season. People can still make use of the bush, grounds and the
restaurant, but with the focus on the bride, rather than the sap. This is
something he is even more committed to this year. In fact, he said the usual
Sunday brunches that normally carry on after the end of April will be no more
this year, due to the demand for weddings and functions on Saturday evenings.
Another interesting piece for visitors is the
new addition of a nature trail to the grounds. It only takes about 20 minutes
to walk, but winds over small bridges and through the sugar bush, giving the
visitors a view of the tapped trees and lines.
This week, Temple
is concentrating on the syrup end of things. After getting all the trees
tapped, he said it's a matter of cleaning and hooking up all the necessary
equipment, which has sat idle since last April. After enough preliminary sap is
collected, things heat up in the sugar house. Temple said he started boiling in McDonalds
Corners over the weekend, making the most of the early start to the season.
New kid on the syrup block, Réné Bosman, was also done tapping by last Thursday
and watching the sap flow in. He and his family are just starting out, with
1,000 taps, but he said it's enough to keep him busy during syrup season. Last
year, he made about 750 litres, which was enough to keep his year-round retreat
centre, Providence Point, fulfilled with syrup. Bosman was planning to boil last
Thursday night. The newest piece of equipment he was excited to test out was a
reverse osmosis machine that takes water out of the sap so it has a higher
sugar content going into the boiling process. "It decreases boiling
time," he said. "Last year we had a really good year in terms of the
amount of sap, so the faster we can turn it over, the better."
Bosman also comes from humble beginnings as a syrup producer. He started their
operation with little experience, even boiling the syrup on stock pots on a
single burner, finishing it off in the lodge.
"It’s been a huge learning proccess,"
Bosman said. "What we started with compared to what we have now is like
night and day."
He said although the unpredictability of the weather and season can be
frustrating, he enjoys the process and actually looks forward to it.
"Making syrup is a social thing," he
said. "I think people appreciate that."