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Birch Sugaring

This is the story of how Josephine Diagneault, formerly of Ile-a-la-Crosse, would go out in the spring to make birch sugar syrup. A French translation is available at
Spring was coming and Josephine Diagneault watched from her island home in Lac Ile-a-la-Crosse, Saskatchewan. The sun became more intense in the clear air. The snow settled and bare patches of ground began to show through. Warm days meant life was returning to the trees. The sap would be rising in the birch and to Josephine that meant sweet syrup for family and friends. This was what she had been waiting for and she was ready.

Josephine supervised as the grandchildren packed the sleds with bedding, a tent, dried moose meat, smoked fish and a large cast iron kettle. She rode in one of the sleighs with her tin pails and paraphernalia, pulled by several grandchildren. The whole expedition was escorted across the lake to the mainland by several aunts and uncles.

They set up camp in a good stand of birch. The large canvas tent was pitched and the airtight heater placed inside. Spruce boughs were cut and laid on the frozen ground, then homemade feather robes placed on top to complete the bed. Here Josephine would stay with five or six of her grandchildren for a week or more.

With almost three-quarters of a century behind her, Josephine had seen a lot of winters change to spring and seldom had she missed the chance to tap the rising sap in the birch trees and boil it down to syrup. She had first gone with her grandmother, then her own mother, then with her children and now with her grandchildren.

It was with an experienced eye that she selected the trees. Small ones would not produce enough sap. Large ones were rejected as well, her preference being for the medium-sized trees. The same tree was not used two years in a row, to give the tree a chance to recover.

With the trees selected, Jospehine would make an upwards slanting cut with her hatchet, just under the bark. The resulting curl of bark was propped open with a small twig and it was from this piece that the sap dripped. Tin pails were propped against the tree with a willow stick or tied around the tree with cord to catch the watery liquid.

In earlier years, before tin pails were available, Jospehine had made her own containers out of birch bark. A square of bark was folded at the corners to make a small watertight box. The corners were fastened with willow roots and the boxes were tied to the trees.

Collecting the filled pails was the responsibility of the children. Some trees yeilded several gallons of sap, while others dripped slowly, producing only a few cups of liquid. All of it was carried back to camp where Josephine was boiling it in a large kettle over an open fire.

The boiling of the sap required close attention. A blazing hot fire was needed to keep the liquid boiling. Forty gallons of sap produces only about one gallon of syrup and all this other liquid must be boiled off. If the syrup is not cooked long enough, it will be too watery and will most likely ferment. If it is boiled too long it will turn to sugar. Josephine knew what the consistency of the finished product must be; when a few sugar crustals formed around the outside edges of the kettle, the syrup was ready to be poured off into other containers to cool.

The children had other chores to do when the pails of sap on the trees did not need tending. In the open patches where the snow was gone there were cranberries to pick, sweeter now from the winter's freeze. Wood had to be gathered to keep the fire under the kettle burning all day long. There were rabbit snares to check for a meal of fresh meat. But with the woods full of spring and new places to explore, work was not always first on the childrens' minds. The children watched their chance to snitch some tobacco from Josephines large tin, then found a sunny spot out of sight in the woods to smoke it and joke about their mischievousnous.

Josephine managed to make about three to four gallons of syrup every year. When she was ready, they would pack their things onto the sleds and be escorted back across the lake to the small island that was her home.

Birch Sugaring | Death Wait

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Modified on 24 Oct 96