The hands were those of Ed and Karen Hartman, the sugarmakers who run Indian Water Maple Co. in New Creek, W.Va., among the endless Allegheny ridges and hollows not too far from the Maryland line. Indian Water isn't a place to pick up some nice Vermont calendar art, or cute crafts. It is West Virginia real, a mom-and-pop operation run by mom and pop, and their three sons, plus Boots Shirley and Ron Oglesbee. It's the kind of maple sugar camp you and I would operate if we had the guts and determination and luck.
"Shoot, when we started 13 years ago, I knew more about making moonshine than making maple syrup," Ed said, with a smile in his eyes that I learned to watch for. Now he and the crew are tapping about 1,500 sugar and red maple trees in late winter to produce about 500 gallons of maple syrup each season.
"Most people don't think of West Virginia as maple syrup country, but the sugar maple is the state tree," Ed said. "There are probably about 50 sugar camps in the state." His own is probably one of the state's largest, and among the most accessible to Washington, which is about three hours due east on U.S. 50.
Just inside the door of the cooking house stood neat stacks of sap buckets enjoying semiretirement having been replaced by about eight miles of vacuum tubing that collects sap from 2,800 taps. Try to imagine a Red Cross blood drive with the donors standing tall across 25 acres of West Virginia hills. The larger donors might wear two or three taps, sharing without harm as much as 10 percent of the sap rising to fill and feed buds and branches.
The sap tastes sweeter than water, but not nearly sweet or thick enough for breakfast. To get pancake-worthy, 42 gallons of sap must be cooked down to a gallon of syrup in the camp's new diesel-fueled cooker, while the sugarmakers carefully watch the temperature and density dials. "Don't miss driving that wood truck," Karen Hartman said as she showed me the propane-heated canner, the final stage before the syrup enters the thousands of gray plastic bottles they sell through the mail, their general store and local fairs ($6.35 a pint, $9.75 a quart). The best of the run, the lightest-colored syrup, she will turn into maple sugar candy.
As Ed walked me up the ridge along one of the vacuum lines, I tried to see the woods as he does. The sugar maples have thin pointed buds and produce sap a bit sweeter than the red maples with their rounder buds. Gypsy moths have killed many oak trees, and the fallen trees and limbs, though they mean a lot of cleanup work, also leave holes in the canopy for new maples. Looking up into a cove of trees, his hand on the shoulder of his 7-year-old son, he said, "We could tap another thousand here."
There is no magical way to predict the start of the tapping season, he said. This year, the robins have flocked back early and the gnats drawn to the sap at the end of the season are already hanging around the first trees tapped. The end of the season, also weather-determined, is usually in late March, when the nights stay too long above freezing and the sap runs buddy and starts to take on a bitter smell.
Ed's power tapper was at the repair shop, so he showed me how he taps by hand, drilling a hole with a hand auger, then inserting the spout. He drives it softly into the tree. "Hear that change in sound?" Ed said. Tap, tap, tap, thunk. "That's when you know you have a good seal and the spout is home."
Later, as we sat over coffee next to the wood stove, Ed started talking in his serious tone about growing up on a farm in West Virginia. "We still used horses back then, especially when haying. Usually just a two-horse team. But sometimes my dad would add a third horse, a white one, and he always put him right between the two blacks."
A pause. He looked at me, challenging my mostly suburban upbringing, then asked, "Do you know why?"
I tried to apply all my vast scientific training to the complicated problem, which turned out to be just what he wanted me to do. I shrugged defeat.
"So we could pull a bigger load," he said with the slightest of smiles. I still have a lot to learn about simple living in complicated West Virginia.
More Maple: Virginia's 41st annual Highland Maple Festival (540/468-2550 or try http://personal.cfw.com /~highcc/maple.html) is this Saturday and Sunday and March 20-21 in Monterey and surrounding towns amid the rock-strewn ridges of Highland County, which calls itself Virginia's Switzerland and is about 3A hours from the Beltway. This is about the only time of the year when the county (population: about 2,500) gets crowded, as some 50,000 visitors come to visit the maple camps and the craft and antique shows spread around the county, plus sample the maple-themed pancakes and funnel cakes, barbecued chicken, fresh trout and other local foods, clogging, bluegrass, country-western dancing on Saturday nights and more. 1/4
The 29th annual Maple Syrup Heritage Festival is 10 to 3 this Saturday and Sunday and March 20-21 at Cunningham Falls State Park (301/271-7574; $3 entrance fee per person,) on U.S. 15 about 18 miles north of Frederick, Md. It offers samples of Maryland maple syrup, wagon rides, sausage and pancake breakfast, maple syrup on ice cream, demonstrations of old-fashioned sap boiling in an iron kettle, vendors and children's activities, including storytelling. 1/4
Next month (April 17-18 and 23-25) brings the 52nd annual Pennsylvania Maple Festival (814/634-0213) to Meyersdale, Pa. (I-68 west past Cumberland, Md., to Exit 22, about 12 miles north on U.S. 219). Admission ($4, $1 for ages 6-12) gets you demonstrations of the maple syrup process from sap to sugarcakes, plus a historical pageant ("Legend of the Magic Water"), arts and crafts, tours of historic sites, storytelling and other kid's activities, a troop encampment, quilt show, vendors antique cars and a parade.
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