I got invited to Sugarbush by the teacher from the Monday night language table, Pebaamibines (Peh·bahm·ibbi·nehss) or Dennis Jones, a retired professor of Ojibwe language at the U of M. Pebaam is an almost archetypal Native American teacher, with two salt-and-pepper braids, a radiant calm, and a voice that brings to mind an all-cello quartet. In order to counteract this image a little, he tells limitless numbers of bad puns. Each year for the last few years, when it’s come time to start up syruping for the season, he’s packed up a surplus army tent and moved out to the woods, for the duration. But he’s a relative newcomer to this sugarbush; people have been tapping the trees there for forty years.
I rode my bike there. It was twenty-eight miles, but I found bike paths and hardly-used back roads, so instead of suburban sprawl I saw quiet forgotten areas and, for the first time, Lake Minnetonka, ice shimmering in the low sun.
Eventually I rode all my roads, and rounded a bend near Lake Independence to find that the trees covering the gentle slope down to the swampy shore had blue bags hanging on them. Home at last. Pebaamibines was there to welcome me, and was frying walleye for anyone who might come. I set up my tent in a clearing, ate in a euphoria, and sat around the fire. It was just me, Pebaam, his wife Laura, and someone I’d never met, Lois. Together we watched the pots of sap boil down.
This is old-fashioned wood-fired syrup cooking. A sturdy metal grate is set up over a roaring fire, and on it there are three huge pots, fifteen or twenty gallons. Fresh sap comes by bucket from the tank into the first kettle; when it’s boiled down a little, someone scoops some of it into the second kettle; when that’s boiled down someone scoops that into the third kettle; the third kettle eventually boils down to syrup. Much of the equipment is homemade. The scoop is made skillfully from an old saucepan and a broom handle.
On the ride over I’d been thinking about how this was an Ojibwe immersion sugarbush. Would there be fluent elders there, would I be able to understand anything? I can hardly say anything! It turned out that it wasn’t really language immersion there. But there was cultural immersion. Moving a little sap every ten minutes or so and keeping the fire going leaves you plenty of concentration for visiting and talking, and I picked up more Anishinaabe culture around the fire that night than I had in months of hearing scraps here and there at Ojibwe tables. We kept on talking until after dark.
And then everyone went home. I got there too early in the season and no one had quite finished moving in yet, so they left to sleep in houses, and I stayed in the woods alone.
So I stayed up and savored the silence: so clean and real after a winter barely leaving the city. And I kept learning. Now through a book, Talking Rocks, that I’d just bought. It’s from this book that I first learned how the Ojibwe calendar goes, and how sugarbush fits in.
The way it worked in the old times was that in the summer, everyone lived together in big villages and had a good time, as well as gathering lots of plants and hunting a little. Then came ricing season, and everyone dispersed to different lakes, several families per lake, to harvest manoomin together. At the beginning of winter people scattered still more, to far-apart winter camps of just one or a few families, living from what they had put by and whatever they could hunt. Men might be gone hunting for weeks at a time.
Spring began, and life began to thaw back out, when sugarbush season began: when the days were above freezing and the sap flowed. People gathered back together like in the fall, and found out how each other’s winters had gone. And soon the sprouts came out and the shoots came up and life came back again.
And some people still do it that way. Not like when the whole village moved at once, but people still get together to harvest rice and boil down sugar all over lake country. Pebaam is one. He moves out to sugarbush and stays for the whole season. People who go ricing set aside many days for it. The rhythms are still beating. When I first learned this calendar, it was clear it was the perfect cycle for this land.
The next few days I was, unexpectedly, in and out of camp. One day I stayed home while camp was closed to avoid a blizzard that, in the end, avoided us instead. I rode back out with things I’d forgotten, like tobacco for offerings, which I’ve learned is important. Whenever I was in camp, I learned and worked. One morning I attended a naming ceremony Pebaam held for a student from the language table, moving and deeply personal. Another day I split lots of wood. I felt good about both.
I spent a week in town and then came back with Misty, and we took part in a different ceremony, and then we spent four days helping haul firewood and gather sap from fourteen acres of trees. We made good friends with the people around the camp. Everyone there is someone I wish I’d known for much longer. I met a guy around my age who plays drums in a protest marching band and makes metalworks and lent me tools to tan deer hides. I talked travel with Deb, the woman who runs the camp, and we shared stories about life with a bike and no car; Deb’s still going strong this way at 63. I got to know Pebaam more than I’d so far been able to, and heard his stories about growing up working as a fishing guide in Canada.
And while we did all that visiting and talking, syrup happened. Once a day or so, the third kettle would get to the thick and delicious state that meant it was just about ready. For an hour or so we’d monitor it intently, sweetness on the mind, until finally the floating glass of the hydrometer gave us the go-ahead. All hands on deck. We’d scoot it off the heat, scoop out all the beautiful brand-new syrup into a box lined with several thicknesses of filters, and carefully let it out through the tap in the bottom of the box into a big metal carafe to keep it safe. The traditional wisdom is that not a single drop of syrup should be wasted. You worked hard to make it, but the maples, the ininaatigoog, worked even harder, and it’s important to honor that work. We took good care of our syrup. In turn it took care of us, when we had pancakes for breakfast with the most delicious, smoky, intense syrup you’ve ever tasted.
Oh, also, we made sugar. Did you know that after you’ve made maple syrup, you can keep on boiling until all the water’s gone, and it turns into crystallized sugar? It’s true. When you do it it’s like magic.
You bring the syrup, slowly, to precisely 258°F. You can get it that far above the boiling point of water because as you’re heating it, you’re evaporating all the water out of it. When it gets to 258°, it’s the texture of hot tar and has practically no moisture left. Now you have to be careful, because now is when it’s dry and it can burn. If it burns, the whole batch, and all your work and all the blood of the ininaatigoog is lost. Everyone helps to keep that from happening.
You pour it into a dugout wooden trough and from then on you just keep it moving. Everyone crowds around the trough with wooden paddles and stirs it like crazy for half an hour while the last of the water evaporates. With each round of paddling, the syrup changes texture; thick, then thicker, then doughy, then grainy—and finally, if you’ve done it right, it crystallizes into sugar right before your eyes. I could hardly believe it. But there it was: brown, sweet, and miraculous.
We even stayed up overnight a couple times to boil syrup down through the night. When it’s warm and the trees are dripping fast, you need to keep boiling or you’ll run out of places to put the sap. (That almost happened to us once. Every bucket in camp was full.) The solution is to stay up in shifts and just keep the fire going all night long and into the morning.
On the second night I stayed up, during my three hours I witnessed the weather shift: from what had been a sixty-degree T-shirt day, all the way to snow. As I sat there, wind flew in and flooded from the blackness above, through the bare branches, down to my little circle of fire and light, bearing snowflakes and the vastness and cold of the winter sky. The forest whooshed and shushed, and the warmth retreated, leaving shivers. When my shift ended it seemed like the space of those three hours had created a different world, and I handed the shift over to Misty feeling somewhat surreal and humbled.
It was a different night, though—one of my first, when I was alone—that left a deeper impression on me.