Iskikamizigeh: Maple Syrup Harvesting

As the spring approaches, the cool nights, and warm days signal that it now time to harvest maple syrup, a long-time practice of First Nations people in Manitoba.  The maple tree sap, which is the clear, sweet liquid that comes out of the Maple tree when it is tapped, will be boiled into maple syrup.  The tree that is tapped here is the Manitoba maple.  Most of Canada’s syrup production comes from sugar maples, but they generally don’t grow on the Prairies.  The winter-hardy Manitoba maple is common to this region and so that’s the tree that is tapped each spring.

Harvesting Maple Sugar

Harvesting maple syrup is not a new practice.  The Anishinaabek have long known of and valued the sweet sap, and the syrup has been used in many traditional First Nations’ maple-cured meats. Records show that as early as the 16th century First Nations people were sharing their maple syrup making process with Europeans. Manitoba maple syrup has a distinct ‘slightly nutty’ flavour which is different from what is harvested from the ‘sugar maple’ in Eastern Canada. 

The History of Harvesting Maple Syrup

The maple sap ran from the first spring thaw until mid-March or April, when the buds were transformed into leaves in.  Forty gallons of sap was collected to make one gallon of syrup; that’s 640 cups of sap to make 16 cups of syrup. When the sap was running at a consistent output, a tree could produce up to two gallons every 24 hours.  Sap was collected daily and brought to camp for boiling.

Rolls of Birch bark were peeled from the trees in early spring and made into wide shallow storage containers measuring 7 to 10 inches wide, 20 inches long and about 8 inches deep. Seams were stitched together with thin strands pulled from spruce roots or basswood trees and sealed with pine pitch. A woman may have owned 1200 to 1500 such containers, each of which were filled and refilled countless times over the season.

Sap buckets were entered in a similar way with the addition of a thin wood strip around the lip of the bucket to prevent tearing.  A cord handle was added to the buckets so they could be suspended from either end of a yoke that was carried across the shoulders. The bucket capacity was 1 to 2 gallons or 4.5 to 9 litres.

Early in the 16th century, the First Nations people shared their maple syrup making process with Europeans. In 1521, Peter Martyr wrote that “Honey is found in the tree and is gathered amongst the briar and the bramble bushes.”   Slices were made in the tree trunk. The sap trickled along the surface of a flat stick or through a reed inserted into the cut, and then dripped into the birch bark bucket. The sap was clear like water with 2-3% sugar content. The sweetness was barely detectable and there is no maple flavour at this point. The sap was then poured into a vessel made from a hollowed-out log. Heated stones were then placed into the sap to bring it to a consistent and slow rolling boil. More sap was added as water boiled off. Care was taken not to add too much sap, because if it boiled over, the fire would be drenched, and hours of work would have been wasted.

Maple syrup usually had 66% sugar content after the water in the sap is boiled away. If the sap boiled for too long, there was a danger of burning it due to the high sugar content. If the sugar content was too low, the syrup was more prone to spoiling. If the sugar content was too high, the syrup may crystalize when stored in liquid form. (These percentages are still relevant.) If left outside overnight in shallow bowls, the water would rise to the surface of the sap and freeze. The layer of ice was removed in the morning before boiling thereby reducing the processing time over the fire.

The Anishinaabek stored the maple syrup in one of three forms: sugar cakes, granular, or taffy. When most of the water was boiled away, the syrup was poured into tight fitting boxes (sometimes called ‘mokuks’) made of birch bark panels sewn together with thin strips of elm bark.  Inside the baskets, the syrup crystalized and formed sugar cakes weighting 20 to 30 pounds each. The sugar filled baskets were a significant part of First Nations commerce.

The cakes could be beaten into a granular form so that people could carry their own personal supply of maple sugar in a pouch. The First Nations people added bits of sugar to water when they wished to add sweetness to a dish. Also, warmed syrup could be drizzled onto fresh snow, and within minutes, it transformed into a toffee like consistency that was easily stored. 

Our people celebrated this time referring to it as the ‘Sugar Moon’.  Sugar moon signals the start of the Anishinaabe New Year. It is a time to embrace the strength of family and relationships and when we acknowledge the power of medicine and the cleansing of the physical body. There are stories of how the maple sugar is a gift from the Creator.  

There is an Iroquois legend that accounts for the discovery of maple syrup. Woksis, an Iroquois chief, pierced the bark of a maple tree with his hatchet. In the morning, his wife discovered that a container at the base of the tree had collected water that ran from the tree overnight. Not one to be wasteful, she decided to use the water in preparation for the evening meal. She tasted the water and found it a bit sweet but not unpleasant. After hours of simmering stew in the sap water, the now familiar maple smell rose from the fire. Woksis and everyone who ate the meal was much pleased by the flavor. Send your pictures and stories of Maple Syrup harvesting to us and we will share them on social media.

Chi miigwech!

Renée McGurry; Earth Lodge Development