Abby Gagne and her grandpa, Fernand Gagne, look at maple syrup samples in the family's sugarhouse in Vermont. The Gagne family has been in the maple syrup business for five generations. (Russell French Photography/For Coombs Family Farm)

Starting in early January, 15-year-old Abby Gagne spends some weekends and afternoons trudging through snow in the 350 acres of woods around her house, helping to “tap” trees. Abby and her family are sugarmakers. For five generations, they’ve collected sap from maples. They boil it down into the thick, sweet syrup North Americans love to drizzle on their pancakes.

“It’s very cool being a part of producing maple syrup,” Abby says. “I know I’m making something special that people enjoy.”

Abby’s dad, Jason, of Gagne Maple in Highgate, Vermont, drills holes 1½ inches deep into the trunks of maples in the woods. Sugarmakers tap only mature trees. These are usually at least 40 years old and 10 inches thick at chest height.

Father and daughter stick a tap into each hole — usually one per tree. Taps are spouts made of plastic for the sap to flow through. They will come out at the end of the season, and the holes will heal.

Abby says, “One of the first things you learn is what is a healthy tree — you don’t want to tap one that’s dying, because that could make it die much quicker.”

By the beginning of March, the Gagne family had tapped 22,000 trees.

Visitors to maple farms such as the Gagnes’ can ride in a horse-drawn cart to see what’s happening in the “sugarbush.” This is how sugarmakers used to collect the buckets of sap hanging beneath the maple taps.

Maple lines show how syrup is collected from trees in Vermont. Small lines connect four or five trees to a mainline and then on to a collection tank. From the tank, the sap is pumped to the sugarhouse. (Ada Cowan)

But now there’s new technology. Plastic tubes hook up to the taps and connect them to one another. The sap flows into a collection tank in the woods. Jason Gagne says this saves him many weeks of hard work.

The tubes also help if you happen to get lost in the sugarbush, Abby says.

“My dad told me that you follow the littlest lines to the biggest line, always moving downhill, because all the lines are on a downgrade,” she says. “Eventually you’ll get to a road, and from there you’ll know where you are.”

From the collection tank, the Gagnes pump the sap into a machine to remove a lot of the sap’s water. Then it’s

A Native American woman taps a tree for maple syrup. Vermont’s white settlers learned the techniques of native peoples. (Roland Reed/Library of Congress)

moved into an evaporator pan in a building called a sugarhouse. The Gagnes make a fire out of maple wood chips. The fire heats the sap and boils it. When it reaches 219 degrees, it’s officially maple syrup.

In addition to running the family’s social media account, boiling is Abby’s favorite maple-related task.

“It’s something I get to do with my grandfather, so it’s special to me,” she says.

Syrup is poured into glass or plastic bottles. One-hundred-and-fifty years ago, though, sugarmakers used tin cans. These leakproof containers allowed them to ship their syrup far from home and helped maple become a big business. Today, sugarmakers in New York, Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire make about 3 million gallons of syrup a year. It’s shipped all around the world.

Sugarmakers have Native Americans to thank for their knowledge. Early white settlers learned the craft from the Ojibwe and other tribes. Early native techniques were similar to those sugarmakers use now — except they collected sap in birch bark bowls before boiling it over an open fire. Either way, the resulting maple syrup was, and is, delicious!

Maple science

●Sugarmakers take between 10 and 30 gallons of sap from each tree.

●It takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup.

●The most common maple for syrup is the sugar maple, or as scientists call it, Acer saccharum.