Tapping for Gold

On Maine Maple Sunday, seeing and tasting the magic of sap-to-syrup at a tree farm in Raymond

By late March, it’s not unusual to hear even the most winter-loving Mainer bemoan the relentless snow, ice, and cold weather. While days may be warm and sunny, most nights the temperatures drop back below freezing, and winter boots are still required footwear. But spring’s slow arrival has a sweet silver lining: It prompts the flow of sap that will be boiled into maple syrup and celebrated at sugarhouses large and small during Maine Maple Sunday, held on the fourth Sunday in March.

Maine is the third-largest producer of maple syrup in the country, behind Vermont and New York. In 2017 the state produced 709,000 gallons of maple syrup, valued at nearly $24 million, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Maine Maple Producers Association, which organizes Maine Maple Sunday, lists some 180 members, including Dewey and Sharon Lloy, who started their maple sugaring operation in 1999 as an addition to their thriving Christmas tree farm, Balsam Ridge, in Raymond.

On Maine Maple Sunday 2018, photographer Sean Thomas and I find Dewey Lloy in the cozy sugarhouse, his cheeks pink from the billows of sweetly scented steam rising from the oil-fired evaporator. He is explaining how the operation works, as families file through, parents lifting snow-suited little ones up to see the clear sap being converted into maple syrup (it takes about 40 gallons of sap to make a single gallon of syrup). Its proximity to greater Portland means that Balsam Ridge usually draws a substantial crowd. “Winter’s been long, and I think people want to see a little spring; this is a sign of it,” says Lloy.

Next door in the shop, Sharon and her crew hand out samples of maple baked beans, maple cotton candy, and paper cups of vanilla ice cream drizzled with maple syrup. This includes the couple’s three daughters, ages 29, 26, and 22, who have been involved in the operation from an early age. “A big part of what appeals to us about Maine Maple Sunday is the strong sense of family—working with our family and having families come and participate,” says Dewey. Outside, visitors can watch a blacksmith working at his forge and a woodcarver in leather chaps using a chainsaw to carve a bear from a tree stump. A free-standing gift shop sells jugs of syrup, maple candy, maple sugar, and other packaged items. The Lloys also provide space in their garage for the Raymond Lions Club to host a pancake breakfast; the $8 fee, which supports the club’s community programs, includes pancakes, bacon or sausage, coffee, juice, and of course, generous lashings of Balsam Ridge maple syrup. Thomas and I perch at a picnic table just outside the garage and dig in to our hearty plates, eager to enjoy it all before it gets cold. With full bellies, we trek out into the snow-covered sugar bush (sugar maple grove) crisscrossed with a web of blue tubing that connects the Lloys’ 1,000 tree taps to the pump house, where a vaccuum system helps pull the sap into a tank. When the level in the tank get high enough, it triggers a pump that sends the sap to the sugarhouse. In the woods, it’s quiet enough to hear the trickle of a melting stream and, if I bend my ear close to a tapped tree, the drip, drip of the sap.

During this year’s Maine Maple Sunday, scheduled for March 24, with events on March 23 as well, a similar scene will be found at sugarhouses from as far south as Wells and as far north as Eagle Lake, 17 miles from the Canadian border. Bob’s Sugarhouse in Dover-Foxcroft will be one of several producers offering the old-school treat of sugar on snow; Chase Farm in Wells conducts tours of their sugar bush in a wagon pulled by Belgian draft horses; while other farms list horse-or tractor-drawn sleigh rides among their activities. Still, other maple syrup producers offer full breakfast and lunch buffets. All are examples of hardworking Mainers continuing a practice started centuries ago by Native Americans who boiled sap into syrup by dropping red-hot rocks into bark buckets and used the result as an all-purpose flavoring. “We have a pretty strong sense that sugaring was done on the farm generations before us,” says Dewey. “We found little huts out on the ridge that are lined with bricks and have fire marks on them.” Today’s technology makes the process easier, but it still takes a mix of temperature, time, and tenacity to keep Maine’s sweet spring tradition flowing, and going strong.

Maine Maple Sunday: March 23-24

Nearly 100 members of the Maine Maple Producers Association are participating in the 36th annual Maine Maple Sunday. The association’s website has a detailed map of the participating producers. Held on the fourth Sunday in March, the event has expanded to include Saturday at some sugarhouses, but check individual websites or call to confirm. Be sure to dress warmly and wear boots— farms can be muddy places. For more information, visit mainemapleproducers.com.