Day 7, Day 3 overnight at the camp Day 1 of Production
We have been at the camp for seven days. The first four days we travelld back at night to our home to sleep. The last three days we have been staying at camp.
We have had one false start of sap running, at one point collecting 200 litres of sap, only to find it muddy. So we had to throw it on the ground and clean all of our equipment.
Last night, however it looked like everything was going to be great. We collected 500 litres of sap to fill the evaporator, and a additional 800 litres for the reserve tank. This morning dawned with temperatures below zero. As the day started to warm up the sap started to flow.
At 1030 am Johanna decided that we had enough sap to start boiling and she plugged in the evaporator for the first time of the 2017 season!
One of the best sights, in the eyes of a syrup maker is steam coming from the vent stacks!
The vacuum system worked well, at one point bringing in 160 litres of sap an hour. It settled down to 80 litres per hour throughout the day.
The Brix level of the sap remained at a constant 1 which means one percent sugar, the sap was clean and fresh!
This year we have Johanna's brother collecting sap from pails. He brought in 400 litres in two days which is a big help.
Johanna regularly checks the brix level in the evaporator and in short time it had increased to 19 ! We will have our first batch of syrup tonight!
The weather surprised us today with a high temperature in the middle teens. It is hard to keep sap fresh in these temperatures. We are told the weather will be cooler for the rest of the week.
I love to explore when I am out in the bush and today I found Johanna, my valentine, a heart shaped rock!
So in two days we collected 2300 litres of sap. This was boiled down to 25 litres of concentrate with a brix level of 27. This will be furthered boiled to make syrup. Our first day of boiling is finished!
We had the last of our visitors today. Peter and Lonnie stopped in to say Hi and to have a snack. Fishing season closes tomorrow and the ice in places is getting bad. The bridge over the pressure crack, which was made using pallets is unsafe. We heard someone went through the pressure ridge so we will stay off the ice.
We are now by ourselves, isolated some would call it, with only a two way radio for communication.
Day 8, Day 4 at camp, Day 2 of Production
The vacuum system ran all night with a rate of 40 litres per hour. We have 240 litres of sap waiting but this is not enough to boil. The night temperature went down to just about the freezing mark. The trees stop producing at 0C and they continued all night so we know it did not freeze. Today is overcast with light winds- Looks like a good sap day!
Rain started around noon. We have no way of knowing for sure, but suspect that anytime you can give water to a tree, that is a good thing. We were supposed to get 1 mm of rain, but by 1.oopm it had been raining fairly steady- not a downpour but a light steady rain. Enough that we had to wear a raincoat in the bush!
The rain continued for the rest of the day and Johanna starts the evaporator at 2.30 pm. At 5.30 pm the brix level increased to 16 and by 8pm she moves another 35 litres of concentrate to the finishing pan.
Day 9 Day 5 at camp Day 3 Production
The rain continued throughout the night. When Johanna got up at 730 am we had 1200 litres of sap in the holding tank. That is about 120 litres per hour of collection over night. Very impressive! Johanna has both the evaporator and the finishing pan going! Rocky Lake Birchworks is in full production! At 730 am it is overcast with a temperature of 2C.
Well today was a surprize, with the clouds clearing and the temperature rising to 12 C. The vacuum continues to pull sap at 80 litres per hour. Peter brought in 320 litres of sap from the pails. Johanna boiled hard and by 3pm we had 18 litres of pure birch syrup in bottles!
Some of this first production run will go to our good friend Constance at her shop in Winnipeg. If you have not tried her creations then you must. Her birch bark bar is made with Rocky Lake Birchworks pure birch syrup. The syrup is also used in her gelato, which won an award for best ice cream in Winnipeg last year! Constance is continually making new goodies and uses our syrups in some of these so you are always in for a surprise when you walk in her door. The shop is also a retailer for our syrups and chaga teas. Please visit her store or online at www.constancepopp.com
The bad news is the forecast for the next few days will see high temperatures around 20C. We have to do some problem solving on how to keep the sap cool in the tank. After 5C the sap can turn bad, with the natural yeast in the air attacking the sugar in the sap. This turns the sap sour and unusable. Mother Nature will decide what the trees will give us and the temperature. All we can do is cross our fingers! On the positive side the sunlight feels great and is drying all our gear!
Day 10, Day 6 at camp, Day 4 of Production
Woke at 5 am to freezing temperatures, checked the vacuum to find the sap had stopped flowing and the vacuum was overheating. Shut everything down to cool. If the vacuum had failed, out production would be over- we have no backup systems. At 8 am we started everything up and collected 240 liters of sap right away.
Al's job is to spend time in the bush where he checks the tubing for leaks and damage. Without fail he comes back with a handful of damaged spiles, tees and tubing pieces. The biggest culprit is not who you would expect, but the little red squirrel! These animals are curious and chew anything. We are not sure if the are being intentionally damaging or if they just want to get at the sweet sap water!
By 1:30 pm Pete and Alan have collected over 1000 litres of sap and Johanna starts the evaporator to begin boiling the sap down.
At about 6 pm we are ready to start bottling the next batch of pure birch syrup. All the bottles have to be sterilized and inspected- a job usually reserved for Alan as Johanna is busy monitoring the brix on the syrup. So today we are using 125 ml bottles. Ten cases or 240 bottles are rinsed and waiting for syrup. Also today we have a special order for 1 liter bottles so those will be filled first!
This is a hot job! You are dealing with hot syrup, in an evaporator room with boiling sap! Great for those fresh skin tones!
At 730 pm we are done the bottling and now to clean the equipment. We should see our beds by 11 pm.
Day 11 Day 7 at Camp Day 5 of Production
We didn't finish up last night until 145 am. We wanted to have everything ready for the hot weather today. Our plan was to get up at 5 am and to start the vacuum. However, when we got up it was freezing, just at 0C. Back to bed for a nap and at 730 am we started the vacuum. Sap was waiting for us in the lines and a quick 320 litres was collected. This was transferred to the sap tank waiting the start of the evaporator.
The day is overcast and it feels like rain- stay away hot weather please, for a few more days yet!
The clouds cleared away in the afternoon and the warmer temperatures descended upon us. It did not get to the forecast temperature of 19C but reached 14C. Both the vacuum and pails are producing well and Johanna is running the evaporator trying to boil the sap down before it spoils. After 5 C the natural yeasts in the air attack the sap, so the rule is boil, boil, boil!
We tried to set up a coolant system for the storage tanks but did not have the proper fittings. So off to the community Al goes. He tried three places and finally found some of the parts. This was a four hour round trip by quad, through bogs, water an bush! Not one we want to make everyday!
The evaporator and finishing pans are boiling hard, we should have some more syrup to bottle tonight. It is hot in the production room. Even with all our exhaust fans going it was 42C tonight! Just like a sauna!
It is 11:45 pm and we just finished bottling four cases of pure birch syrup, just under 15 liters! The evaporator is still boiling hard and we will draw off to the finishing pan before we go to bed.
At 1 am we have finished cleaning and we head off to our much needed sleep!
Day 12 Day 8 at Camp Day 6 of Production
Looks like it is going to be a scorcher of a day. At noon it is 14C Al started his day by walking the tubing to ensure the vacuum is drawing sap. Overnight 600 litres of sap was collected. Johanna started the evaporator at 930 am but by 1130 am we had run out of sap. We shut the evaporator down and will wait the arrival of Pete who is out collecting from the pails.
On another note, most of the migratory birds have returned and are looking for nesting sites. Al has scared up a hen mallard for the last few days from the clearing. She is nesting away form the dangers of the water. There are another pair nesting in the swamp. We heard our first loon calling, which seems early as we still have ice on the lake. A pair of Bald eagles have a nest close by and come flying overhead looking for food of any sort. The terns and seagulls have all made nests on the island. Yesterday a wood duck circled our point looking for a nesting site. We had the rare sight of seeing three Tundra Swans flying over our camp. They had just lifted off the ice so they were just above the tree line. Butterflies, and moths have emerged from their winter hiding spots. We even slapped our first mosquito!
An interesting day for birch syrup makers. The temperature reached 20C outside and 52C in the evaporator room! Sap slowed down during the day. The vacuum drew in about 60 litres per hour. Johanna boils off about 200 liters of water per hour so we could not keep the evaporator running. However we do not sit still. Repairs to the quads are performed, fuel has to be pumped and water hauled! Inside chores and cleaning is a daily occurrence. Recycling was collected and stored for removal by boat over the summer.
We are experimenting with a home made compost toilet which is exciting! The pail is emptied every day into the compost bin and covered. We feel positive using this toilet, but it is a learning curve. Just like a normal compost bin, everything has to be covered so flies and vermin are not attracted to the toilet and there is no smell!
This summer we are going to the DIY Homesteader Festival in Teulon Manitoba, where there is a lecture on composting toilets. We are very interested in attending that lecture. Hopefully it is not at the same time slot as our presentation, which of course is on tapping trees and birch syrup!
If you are interested in the festival check out the web site www.homesteaderfest.com
At 8 pm we are finished bottling. Over 200 - 50 ml bottles and 24 - 125 ml bottles of pure syrup was bottled. Clean up can begin and we will be in bed early! It is 14C outside, lets hope for cooler weather tomorrow.
Day 13, Day 9 at camp Day 7 of Production
Last night we cleaned the sap tank, and the sap release tank on the vacuum. The warmer weather did not do us any favors today. A low pressure system was moving in, bringing with it clouds, rain and an east wind. We started the vacuum and it gave us 320 litres of sap. It then settled down to 80 litres per hour. Peter had 320 litres from last night all of which went into the sap tank. Luckily for us it had stayed cool and the sap did not spoil. The tubing and sap ladders were all inspected and everything seems to be working well. Today may be an inside day !
The sap Ladders
Our land has different levels and elevations and the mainline starts off about one meter above the ground. We like to maintain a slope of about three percent which translates to three meters over one hundred meters. At the extent the mainline would be eighteen meters above the starting level! So how do we get the sap to the sugar shack and still have a workable level of mainline. Well, we construct a sap ladder. Basically the ladder is smaller tubing which brings the sap, under vacuum, from a lower level to a higher level. Therefore we can drop the mainline and restart the level again. Surprisingly it works really well
At 1.30 pm Peter came back after emptying the pails. He has about 400 litres of sap. Now our sap tank is full and Johanna starts the boil!
The rain continues and the temperature has risen to 3C A cool day will be good for the sap.
Alan and Johanna labeled bottles most of the morning, a good job for a rainy day. Boiling in the evaporator continued for most of the day. The outside temperature stayed about the same, around 4C. At 7pm we drew off some of the concentrate to the finishing pan. There is only about 240 litres of sap in the holding tank, so we will boil for another hour and shut things down for the day. It appears that it will freeze tonight so the vacuum is shut off to protect the equipment.
Spring is here for sure. Today we saw some stinging nettle emerging from the ground, the buds of the wild rose are starting to open. We are looking for fiddle heads which should be out this week. The boreal forest provides for those who live in it!
Day 14 day 10 at Camp Day 8 of Production
It did not appear to freeze overnight but it was close and we are happy we shut the equipment down to protect it. Better safe than sorry!
Johanna started the vacuum up at 730 am and pulled in about 100 litres of sap, so it appears the trees are slowing down. As Johanna was walking a flock of Tundra Swans flew overhead! What a great way to start the day!
Al walked the lines to ensure that everything was working properly. Pete"s pails are doing well and he is off to collect sap. The finishing pan is boiling and the evaporator is waiting for sap.
We are on the backside of a low pressure system so it will be interesting to see how the temperature and pressure affects the sap flow.
At 2 pm Peter returns with 900 litres of sap and Johanna starts to boil. She has about 8 hours of boiling to do today!
Al goes off into the bush to cut up a couple of trees that had come down on the tubing over the winter. Nothing goes to waste, the trees will heat our home next winter. Al had delimbed them last fall.
One thing we are cautious of is bears looking for dens in the fall. Nothing could be crankier than a mother bear and her cubs emerging from their den. Bears in this part of the country look for blown over evergreen trees to den under. They pull a few fresh branches to make a canopy and when the snow falls they are nice and warm. So all the blown down evergreens on our site are de-limbed before winter. Mamma Bear will have to look elsewhere for her den. We have never had trouble with bears in the spring and would like to keep it that way.
During the summer months the bears roam freely, they have bitten our lines, torn up our boat seats and chewed up a gas can! But the damage is minimal to what they could do. We understand that we have invaded their home and are grateful for them leaving us alone in the spring. We bear proof all our buildings to protect both the property and the bears.
By 6 pm we have finished the bottling of the syrup. There is about 400 litres in the sap tank. We have about two more hours of boiling and then we shut down for the night.
Every day is a good day in the birch syrup camp but today was a very good and productive day.
AT 9.20 pm we are done, everything is cleaned and the day is finished. The light rain has turned to snow, but it will not stay as it is above zero!
Day 15 Day 11 at Camp Day 9 of Production
Another rainy day today! So we don our rain suits for the bush work. First thing is cleaning the vacuum so we can bring sap in. Then off to the bush for AL and Pete. Johanna has brought her accounting books with her to work on in the down times. No rest for the wicked!
A cruel trick was played on us. We left 200 litres of sap in the sap tank, thinking it was cool enough. However overnight, Mother Natural unleashed her sap attacking yeast monsters and they went to work. When we checked the tank this morning, all the sweet smelling sap had turned into a sour mess. Can you picture the yeast, all in their microbial glory feasting on the helpless sugars in the sap? Lesson learned and now to flush and clean the tank. The big loss of course was the sap.
By noon the rain had been falling steadily and the bush boys are soaked. Time for tea and a warm up.
Johanna is putting labels on the bottles, marking them with lot numbers and boxing them.
Peter comes back with 400 litres of sap and we start the evaporator. Of course he is soaked with the rain. Rain suit or not, nothing will keep you dry in this weather!
Peter had a part break on his quad, so arrangement were made with our son Peter to meet him in Wanless. The trail should be interesting with two days rain on it!
At 6pm we are finished bottling and the evaporator is started. Today is a slow day for sap so we should be done by 9pm. We are not sure if it is the temperature, pressure of if the trees are finished giving up their sap, but it has slowed down considerably.
Birch trees, and all trees, will heal most minor damage. After being injured, the birch will produce a white substance like liquid cellulose. The they produce a pink substance. Once we see the pick, we know our season is finishing. Today, a number of trees were producing pick!
We have shut off the vacuum system as it is not drawing. Is our sap season done?
Peter comes back at 6.30 pm, wet like an old duck. Some warm soup will help him out. We continue to boil and by 8.15 pm the brix is 10. Another hour or so we will be out of sap.
It is 2C, will it freeze tonight? Is that why our trees have slowed down? Tomorrow will tell!
After cleaning the pans we are waiting for concentrate from the evaporator, so the cribbage board comes out. At 10pm we draw off from the evaporator as the sap tank is empty. Pray that Mother Nature does not unleash her monsters from the yeast world tonight! .
Day 16 Day 12 at Camp Day 10 of Production.
This is now our third straight at of rain with no let up in sight. Al will clean out the vacuum for one more attempt at getting sap from the trees attached to the tubing. Peter is off to check his pails and Johanna has bottles to label. It did not appear to freeze overnight, so the sap should have kept running.
The rain has saturated the ground. We have standing water in places where we have never had water before. When you walk, your feet sink down in the squishy ground. The lake level is high and although we had little snow, our water table remains high.
The vacuum is bringing in about 40 liters an hour so we will let it run to see if that improves. Al returns from the bush to warm up. Pete returns at 1.30pm with 400 liters of sap. He says the trees at the higher elevations are producing really well and expects to have another 400 liters by the end of the day. It appears that elevation is a factor, along with temperature in the production of sap. The vacuum system tubing ends just at the bottom of the hill and the sap production is just about finished at these trees. Tomorrow warmer temperatures are forecasted as a high pressure is moving in.
By 4.30 pm Peter has brought in 1200 litres of sap from the pails. Very impressive! The evaporator has started and we are boiling sap. The temperature has not risen all day and remains at 2C.
The rain has stopped, the rain has stopped, Yahoo!!!! Now things can dry up somewhat. We are walking around and see the small buds on saplings are starting to get bigger. Sap is reaching the end of the branches and soon leaves will appear.
Johanna is boiling hard, trying to get three more batches of syrup. Lets hope she gets what she wants. At 8pm the boys from the bush come back, cold and tired. They clean up and it is nice to get into a room where it is hot and humid! By midnight Johanna had boiled the sap down and was able to draw off 55 litres of concentrate for the finishing pan.
Day 17 Day 13 at Camp Day 11 of Production
The sun, the sun, the sun is out! We can open the windows and start to dry things out. The temperature has only risen a degree to 3C, but the warmth of the sun is evident. There is a strong wind from the north west which should speed the drying. The wind will also speed up the melting of the ice on the lake.
We think the lake ice helps with the production of birch syrup. It acts as a natural moderator for the site, keeping it cooler than other areas. This helps in cooling the sap and that is a good thing.
Last year at this time we had finished producing syrup and had been home for two days. Did the larger than normal ice depth influence our season this year? Just one of those questions to ponder
Last night the crew worked late so our breakfast turned into a brunch of sorts. We eat well at the camp. Breakfast is usually bacon and eggs, or French toast- with birch syrup of course. If anyone is hungry at noon they can make a sandwich. For supper, usually eaten around 8 pm, we have steak or roasts, potatoes and veggies, spaghetti or rice. Good hardy meals for people doing physical work in the bush!
The vacuum system pulled in a quick 240 litres and now has slowed down. Petes pails however, show real promise of a big day. Will he beat yesterdays one day total?
Today will be the last day for the vacuum. It takes a full day to shut it down, flush the lines and ready it for summer. That will be tomorrow. Friday is the last work day in the bush as we all have to leave on Saturday. The season is a week late and we had planned meetings in the middle of the month. So it is with regret we have to shut down. Next year we will plan better.
By 230 pm the vacuum had pulled in 400 litres. Peter is still not back from the bush with his sap. Johanna starts the finishing pan and we start boiling for the day.
Our production for the year is about one third of last year. This is due to a number of reasons. The first is that Johanna is making more pure syrup than she did last year. She has made almost 100 litres of pure syrup so far this year. This means she has boiled down 12,500 litres of sap. Add another 2500 litres of sap for the breakfast syrup and the total sap collected is about 15,000 litres.
The second reason is our sap collection is way down, almost two thirds of what we expect.
Pete returns with his first 400 litres but we need 1200 litres in the tank before we can start to boil.
At 430 pm Peter brings in another 400 litres and Johanna starts the evaporator. This will probably be our second last boil.
The flocks of snow geese are flying north, higher than the clouds so spring is here for sure! We sit outside enjoying the warmer air while the evaporator boils away.
By 830 pm we have bottled 90 -125 ml bottles of pure birch syrup. The evaporator is boiling again and we will have concentrate for the finishing pan. A great day. It has clouded over and feels like rain, hopefully not.
Our facility is food safe and we are required to wear not only PPE but food safe coverings. So, just like a hospital, we don the little booties, hats and of course rubber gloves. In addition, because we are dealing with hot liquid, we wear protective cotton gloves under our rubber gloves.
Day 18 Day 14 at Camp Day 12 of Production
Cloudy and cool this morning. By 8 am Peter is off to pick up his pails. Al will start to decommission the vacuum lines and we will start to close up the collection of sap. Johanna still has a boil for the evaporator and two finishing pans are boiling.
It is a day of mixed emotions, we are sad to be leaving our place of peace, but excited to see our children, grandchildren, friends and learn what we have missed for two weeks! We are also excited to be bringing a new batch of birch syrup to our customers!
The tubing is cleaned by removing the spiles from the holes in the trees. Then we hook a water pump to the mainline and pump thousands of litres of water through the tubing and out the spiles.
The sap ladders are bypassed with one inch tubing. At the beginning of the next season we will install new spiles and drop lines to ensure everything is clean. The old spiles will be hand cleaned and inspected. The undamaged ones with be used in the future.
Just about noon Peter brings in just short of 800 litres of sap. That will be his last trip for the season. All the trees have now been taken off the systems, both tubing and pail.
We have collected about 23,500 litres of sap, which is way down from our all time high of 64,000 litres in 2015.
Peter pulled all his pails and will spend the next two days cleaning them. Al cleaned the tubing from the point to the clearing- about half the site. Tomorrow is the final cleaning day outside, then the bush boys move inside to help Johanna with the evaporator and finishing pans.
At 8 pm Johanna is still boiling , the outside cleaning has finished for the day. We start a game of cribbage while we wait for the bottling to start.
By midnight Johanna and Peter filled 88 - 125 ml bottles of pure syrup.
Day 19 day 15 at Camp Day 13 of Production
Today is the final cleaning day. Al has the tubing above the third sap ladder to clean. Peter has 200 pails to clean. Johanna has equipment to clean. By 5pm Al had finished his tubing, cleaned the vacuum system and moved pumps and equipment into storage. Peter had finished his tubing and worked his way through the pails. Now the big job the evaporator.
Luckily we use a food safe acid- diluted of course, to eat away at the scale on the pans. Just an hour of elbow grease and it will be ready for a rinse.
We have adopted a camp bird- or maybe it has adopted us. There is a little brown bird, that looks like a cow bird that has been spending the night in the generator shack. Every morning when we open the door to start the generator, there it is- inside and waits for us to let it out. It spends the day following us, looking for seeds and other edibles. I think it follows the quad as the tires disturb the forest floor exposing a new source of food.
I will have to use my IPhone app to identify it once I get into cell range. (It was later identified as a brown headed cowbird)
The cleaning continues until after 6pm when we take a break for our traditional end of season hot dog roast.
The heavy equipment cleaning is finished at 11pm and we shut the generator down. Our camp bird is safely perched on his roost in the generator room. Silence descends on the camp, with the exception of our noisy neighbours who seem to be having a party. The nesting gulls and terns on Gull Island never, not even in the dark, stop squawking!
Day 20 Day 16 at Camp Day 14 of Production
Everyone is up with the dawn of the new day. Final cleanup of the site and the quads have to be loaded. A two hour trek through swamps and muddy roads awaits us. Rain suits and rubber boots will be the fashion of the day! We do not make this trip lightly as it is rough and hard on equipment and bodies.
We travelled less than 20 kilometers and were picked up four hours after leaving camp!
The time spent in the camp was a good one. The work was hard, but we find peace in the quiet, in nature and spending time with family. Our production season may be over for this year but we are planning for next years trip already!
Making birch syrup truly is a labour of love since it is one of the rarest gourmet food products in the world, and one of the most difficult to produce.