Tapping into our roots

Exploring traditional and modern practices of harvesting maple sap in the region 

BY OLIVIA LEVESQUE
Arts and Culture Editor

PC: Olivia Levesque

In the Beginning
Hopefully the colder days are behind us and spring is forthcoming: the season of fresh beginnings and the time of year when maple sap starts to flow. Pure Canadian maple syrup is something we often see on the shelves in the supermarket, and is usually bought for the odd Finnish pancake breakfast. However, aside from our consumerist practices, real, pure, and Canadian maple syrup has its history in indigenous tradition and culture. Maple legends and lore from the Mohawk, Iroquois, and Ojibwa nations have existed for longer than historians can trace. Tapping for sap and processing the sap to sugar originated with Eastern indigenous peoples.

The practice of sugaring by the Ojibwa historically took place atop what is now known as Mount McKay, or Thunder Mountain (Animikii-wajiw in Ojibwa language). Towards the end of winter, around March and into April was a time of preparation for the sugaring season. Ishkigamisegi Geezis was the Moon of Boiling, which alerted the people it was time to harvest. The sugar maple and red maple can be found on Mount McKay, though the region is also no stranger to silver maples. Snow would typically still lay on the ground during the sugaring season, and harvesters would carry rolls of birch bark to cover the frames of last year’s wigwams, as well as birch bark bowls and baskets to catch the sap. Of course, when they became available from traders, iron kettles were among the tools used to harvest. Spiles are the instruments use to tap into the trees and were often made out of elderberry or sumac stems; they were hammered into the south side of the tree, a few feet up from the ground, and sealed in with hot pitch from spruce trees.

Heating the sap before the use of kettles and pots became more common meant dropping a multitude of hot rocks into a birch basket as part of the process of making maple syrup. Of course with an introduction of iron pots this process could be done away with, making the boiling and evaporation process much more simplified.

Fast Forwarding a Couple Centuries: Modern Maple Syrup Production
An intimate look into the works of local maple syrup producers, The Nor’Wester Maple Co.

Currently the Canadian maple syrup industry is undergoing record growth, as markets at home and abroad are eagerly demanding quality 100% pure product. Ontario is a fast-growing region in the Canadian maple syrup industry. Four of Ontario’s largest producers are in Algoma, Ontario. St. Joseph Island, located in northwestern Lake Huron has the highest number of taps/acre in the province with over 100 producers.

Only 10% of the maple syrup produced in Ontario is consumed in the province. Much of it is exported, and in turn we stock our shelves with imported syrup from Quebec, Canada’s largest producing region. With climate change, it is expected that production could be moving further north and is expected to benefit the producers in Algoma. However, new on the scene of maple syrup production is a group of young men with eager hearts to start something big. With a passion for the local food movement and community-based consumption, the Nor’Wester Maple Company is an exciting branch to add to our already diverse board of local producers. Sean Murray, Abraham Zettek, Dave Bates, and Cale Leeson are the partners of the Nor’Wester Maple Company, and have been working hard throughout the fall and the cold months of early winter to have an up-and-running maple stand and sugar shack by the end of this month. The partners have all attended Lakehead University at different points in their academic careers, ranging from studies in forestry to nursing.

The curiosity sparked for the group a year ago when they first began to seek out ways of harvesting birch sap to make syrup for personal consumption. But they decided they didn’t want to stop there. Through a lot of hard work and expertise, a few of the partners stumbled upon a maple stand located in the Nor’Wester mountain range, south of Thunder Bay border. The stand exists in a raw maple forest, in its most natural state and unaltered by human touch.

The partners of the Nor’Wester Maple Company spoke of the uniqueness of their operation, as the stand is located in such a microclimate. The maples, which are not even comparable to southern Ontario in the maple belt in terms of quantity, will be sufficient for the level they are operating. Quebec is biggest hub for maples, where there are over 150 000 taps in any given operation.

In an interview with The Argus, Abe Zettek and Sean Murray describe the benefits of being located in a raw maple forest in comparison to the natural forests being altered by maple companies, turning stands into monoculture forests: “Really, because we are completely unmanaged, this is a raw maple forest with sugar maples as well as red maple. We have all sorts of trees like black ash, poplar, birch, pine… It’s really diverse. Forests like ours have much more biodiversity which means there’s much more food and animals, which gives the forest the ability to bounce back from things like disease”.

Although the Nor’Wester Maple Company is confident in producing a balanced and delicious product, the fate of it all falls in the hands of the climate. Environmental conditions can be variables in production, affecting the grades of syrup being produced. There are four different maple syrup grades that are marketed in different ways. These variations come at different points in the sugaring season. The grades of syrup are based on colour and taste. Amber syrup is the classic maple syrup that most of us are used to, which is harvested early to mid-season. Darker syrups, harvested later in the season, are stronger in flavour, and are used as a commercial grade and for batch cooking. Maple sugar is also made with the dark grade syrup.

Recently the partners of the company attended a producer conference in Bruce Mines, where they were able to learn and communicate with other producers in the field. In an interview with The Argus, the group spoke of the opportunity as being eye-opening and a great way to connect with the producers of maple syrup in community. The conference creates an atmosphere that bonds the producers together, rather than making any kind of competition. Leeson describes it as “producers working together to make a better product across the board, and just to ensure that you’re always going to get a excellent product from the region”.

The Nor’Wester Maple Company hopes to spark interest and inspiration in the community about knowing your food and connecting with the resources around the region. Zettek shares, “It was inspiring to me before this but then you actually see someone close to home doing something like what we are doing, and you realize that this is a real thing that real people do. I hope it gives people the feeling that they can do something like it, too. It’s sustainable, environmental based and something that’s been done for thousands of years.” One of the biggest goals for the Nor’Wester Maple Company is to stress the “Not just for your pancakes” mentality. They’re looking to inspire their customers with strong flavours to get creative in the kitchen, as well as offer a substitute from refined sugars and sweeteners.

The men of the maple company are nothing but passionate about their business and the natural environment they work in everyday out at the stand. A lot of their conversation with The Argus was reflective of their time spent working on this project over the last six months, and the first time they tapped trees the traditional way. They also recounted the kind of tracks and wildlife they see in the area, as well as all the tireless days doing manual labour to maintain the area. Murray describes the experience of tapping into the trees like no other: “There’s nothing like it when you’re up there – it’s quiet and all you can hear is the drip of sap at different pitches. It’s super relaxing and connects you to your land. It grounds you, but it kicks your ass too. It’s really hard work.”
“Yeah, its not a flick of a switch,” adds Leeson. “There’s heritage behind it, and it really gives you the feeling like you’re tapping into something ancient”.

Even today, sap collection and boiling inspires a sense of community as family and friends gather in the months of March and April for the five-week run of harvesting maple sap. The Nor’Wester Maple Company need many hands to gather the hundreds of liters of sap that drip from the trees daily, but they are already very thankful for all the help they’ve had so far. Piles and piles of firewood need to be cut and split, and the boiling of the sap down to syrup requires unwavering focus to ensure it does not burn. Most days at the stand for the men are sun up to sun down, and much of the work is physically strenuous. Even with all the challenges that come along with making maple syrup, it yields a very sweet reward.

Editor’s Note: Historical background gathered from Native Art In Canada: An Ojibwa Elder’s Art and Stories

You can follow the progress of the Nor’Wester Maple Company on Facebook and Instagram

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