The other day I stumbled across a web site showing how to build a “rocket stove” which is two pipes that meet at a 90 degree angle – one vertical, and one horizontal. These pipes are then set inside a metal bucket, and the space between the bucket and the pipes is filled with sand. Fuel and air are fed into the fire though the horizontal pipe, and the flames, heat, and smoke go through the vertical one. The sand holds in the heat to make it very hot.

When I saw it, it reminded me of a Dakota fire. This is made by digging a hole straight down in the ground, and then digging a smaller diameter hole angling down so that they both meet at the bottom. Fuel and air are fed through the diagonal hole, and the heat and smoke go out the vertical one.

Since I have about five gallons of sap to boil down into syrup, and lacking a large metal bucket, I thought I’d give the Dakota fire a shot at it. Not that anyone uses a rocket stove to boil sap.

We have about a foot of snow in the backyard, so I shoveled out a spot to work and chiseled through the frozen ground (it was only frozen for an inch or two). Then I dug the Dakota hole, lit a fire in it, and set a big pot over the flame. Va gave me a pot. She doesn’t care if I make it suety, so I’m in the clear there.

Dakota Fire

Dakota Fire

I didn’t have the lid on the pot for very long, but it was on there when I took the photo. It would be hard to evaporate sap with a lid in the way holding all the steam in.

The fire did burn pretty hot, and I spent the whole afternoon feeding it sticks. But by the time it got dark, the sap had not been reduced by more than an inch or so. I took the kettle off the boil, let the fire die down, and went in the house for the night.

Since it took all afternoon to get it to go down one inch, I decided to just do it inside. I used a different pot since I didn’t want to get the stovetop all suety. I reduced the sap by another three inches or so, but I noticed that instead of smelling like syrup, it smelled like smoke. Since smoke is largely solid particulate matter, and since solid particulate matter does not evaporate, I reasoned that the smoke in the sap would just get more and more concentrated. Which is something I did not want. So I dumped it out.

The trees are making plenty of sap though, so five gallons is not a major loss. And I learned something.

Don’t use a Dakota fire to reduce sap unless you can rig up a chimney somehow.

Today I talked Beth into going into the woods behind the house with me so we could tap a tree or two. First stop was the garage where we found my sap bucket. Last week I bought another bucket at Bryant & Lawrence in Tilton. He didn’t have any taps, but I thought I had an extra at the house, so no big deal. Turns out I only had one tap to go with my one bucket and one lid.

So we went out with just the one bucket. She bored a hole, but I had put too large a bit in the brace. Bummer. We wedged the tap into that hole anyhow, and I jammed a few twigs in above the tap to help hold it in place. I think it will work out, but if it doesn’t, I have more trees than taps & buckets.

After we had some lunch, I headed into Concord. I stopped at Agway while I was there and picked up a tap to go with my new bucket. Well… my new bucket is actually quite old. I don’t know how old, but it has definitely seen some service in the past.

Then I stopped at the church to hang some backdrops for Va. This weekend we will have Adventurer Camp-in. We were supposed to have it the day Nemo hit, but… it’s pretty hard to get anyone to come out in a blizzard, so she rescheduled it.

I got home again just before it got dark and headed back into the woods with my brace and bit, new/old bucket, and new/new tap. Once I had bored the hole the sap started to run immediately. I mounted the bucket and listened to a very satisfying “plink, plink, plink” as the sap dripped into the bucket.

A new old bucket

A new old bucket

I’ll check on them both tomorrow.

Today I took a walk during my lunchbreak to see how spring is coming along. The silver maples are still in bloom, as are the crocuses, but that’s about it. Along the railroad tracks I spotted this:

Digitabulus laboris

Digitabulus laboris

For a few milliseconds after glimpsing this, I thought it was some sort of monocot with nice thick leaves pushing defiantly up through the soil, but upon closer inspection… ok, it’s an old work glove. Or as they might say in Latin, “Digitabulus laboris”.

The black locust is budding though.

Robinia pseudoacacia

Robinia pseudoacacia

I thought I might meander over to LL Bean while I was out, but there was a car accident on the sidewalk along that route, so I just took my usual lap. Had I gone to Bean, I would probably have missed the sprouting of the glove.

When I got home I went out to check my sap bucket. It had half a gallon of sap in it, but it also had a dozen mosquitoes and a moth. That’s the sign that syruping season has come to an end, so I dumped it out and removed my tap. I have a couple of gallons of unboiled sap to process now, along with some that I reduced by about 20:1 last week. I’ll prolly mix them together and boil it down tomorrow evening. Then that’s it until next year.

Two days ago we got about four inches of snow.

Snow-covered bushes

March 22

I thought it was beautiful, but a lot of people in these parts grumbled about it. We had more snow today, but no accumulation. It was coming down fluriously around lunchtime. I met Jonathan at the Tea Garden, which is our habit on Thursdays. Along the way I passed a silver maple (Acer saccharinum) and from a distance I could tell that it was in bloom. When I got close, I verified.
Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) blossoms

Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) blossoms

It is the first blossom I’ve seen this year. It beat the crocus and the hyacinths, and I was glad to see it, even if it does mean I won’t be getting much more in the way of snow this year.

I still have six inches of snowpack at my place. There are, however, a few bare spots in the woods here and there.

I'm melting!

I'm melting!

It’s hard to tell if that’s enough to justify snowshoes, or if I’m just putting them on for fun. 🙂 But I did put them on today, and found two or three quarts of sap in my maple bucket. I emptied it into my six gallon jug, and noted that it’s pretty close to half full now. I might have to start boiling it down soon. I don’t have a “real” evaporator – that’s hardly justified for only three gallons of sap, especially since they ask four digits for those on Craigslist. I don’t know why! Instead, I will just use a big soup pot. It worked last time.

Today after work (hooray Daylight Savings Time!) I slipped into my snowshoes and went out to check my sap bucket again. The last time I looked (Friday?) there was only about a quart of sap in the bucket. Today there were six quarts!

I went into the house and grabbed a six gallon jug that I keep filled with water in case we lose power (good for drinking, and for flushing). I poured out the water and then poured the sap into the jug. Then I set it down in a snowbank next to the house. When the snow is gone, I will move it to the freezer in the basement, and when I quit getting sap, or the sap starts to come out yellow, or I start catching moths in my bucket, the season is over. That’s when I’ll get my sap out of the freezer and boil it down into syrup.

It takes 30-40 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup. All I’m hoping for is a quart of syrup, but I would settle for a pint.

I’ve got huge pockets of melted snow in the woods now, and these pockets form vernal pools.

Vernal Pools

Vernal Pools

I still haven’t seen any salamanders in these pools, but my understanding is that this is the time of year when they breed, and their preferred venue for that is vernal pools.

The other things these pools do besides provide rendezvous points for romantic newts is tell me a little bit about my woods that I did not know. It was once a pasture.

I bought a book a while back – Forest Forensics: A Field Guide to Reading the Forested Landscape by Tom Wessels. When I ordered it, I thought it would cover things like animal tracking. I was wrong, but I was not disappointed! Instead, it tells how to tell what the woods had been used for over the past couple hundred years.

My forest has a stone wall in it which indicates that it was used agriculturally at one time. But the vernal pools tell me that it was never used for crops. Also it was never used for growing hay. That leaves pastures.

These pools form in depressions called “cradles”, and next to each cradle is a mound of earth called a “pillow”. The pillows and cradles are formed when a tree topples over and raises a huge rootwad and excavating the cradle. As the tree decays, the soil in its roots falls to the ground forming the pillow. Forests that have never been used agriculturally will also have pillows and cradles, but they won’t have stone walls. Actually, it’s possible that the land on the other side of my stone wall was used for ag, but not my side. I’ll have to wait for the snow to go before I can really tell.

When land was first cleared, the farmers would pile the rocks up and then use them to build stone walls. As fields were plowed annually, they turned up small rocks. These rocks were added to the walls. If the field was used for growing hay, it would not have been plowed except once – and the pillows and cradles would have been severely attenuated, but not obliterated as annual plowing would. Also, they would not have churned up so many small rocks. They plowed hay fields so that they could work them with a scythe – it’s hard to get hay out of a cradle with a pillow in the way. They plowed them only once because that was good enough.

I found all this stuff rather fascinating, and plan to fully investigate my woods this spring. It’s fun doing this kind of detective work!



As soon as Jonathan and I got off the Interstate after work today, we were greeted by some awesome fogginess. So I parked the car, got out and took some photos. I think this one turned out the best. Just beyond that treeline in the back is the Merrimack River.

The snow is only about a foot deep in my yard now. I put the snowshoes on when I got home so I could check my sap bucket. It doesn’t seem to have gained any so far this week. Oh well. There are several vernal pools in the pathway between the house and the bucket though. I went around. Even though snowshoes make me float on snow, I don’t think they’d be very effective at keeping my feet above liquid water. I stopped and peered into several of the pools looking for salamanders, but found none. I didn’t spend a lot of time looking though. I will look again as spring progresses.

Last week I tapped my one maple tree, and then was very pleased that the weather seemed perfect for syruping – below freezing at night, and above during the day. But in spite of that, the sap isn’t flowing yet. I put on my snowshoes and went out again today after work to check on things.

Ready for action

Ready for action

Still no sap. Penny knew right where I was headed though, so she led the way. Not that she’s interested in sap – she was looking for sticks for me to throw for her:
Found one!

Found one!

We had some snow Sunday. I knew we were supposed to get a couple of inches, and I had to drive to Maine to pick up our February citrus shipment. I was surprised to find five inches in the driveway when I left the house.

Then today we had freezing rain followed by regular rain, so the snow is pretty wet.

I wanted to do a little snowshoeing on Saturday, but couldn’t talk Beth into going. So I went out alone (well… with Penny), but just stayed on our place. I checked out the frog pond and did the loop on the trail through the woods. I saw this mouse hole in the snow:

Mouse tracks

Mouse tracks

The tracks went along the surface for about five feet. I couldn’t see a hole at the other end of the trail because Penny had gone ahead of me and spoiled the trail (though she was oblivious to mouse sign, as best I could tell).

I don’t know how much longer this snow will last, but it’s over the well head in the back yard again. I guess that makes it two and a half feet deep or so. The snow we got Friday was light an fluffy, and the snow we got Sunday was wet and heavy. That definitely makes for a different snowshoeing experience. In the light stuff, the shoes sink down six to twelve inches (depending on how deep the light stuff goes). In wet, heavy snow, the snow gathers on the webbing. I guess the deck is webbed to allow the snow to sift through, but I’ve never read that anywhere. It just make sense. But it breaks down in wet stuff.

The other thing I did Sunday besides fetching fruit from Freeport, was dig a trench through a snowbank at the church. Two years ago we had even more snow than we got this year, and the snow pile at the church was preventing the parking lot from draining. We ended up bringing in a backhoe to cut a drainage channel. It was set to do that again, and I had to be at the church for a while in the evening so people could come and get their fruit orders. So instead of sitting around, I got a snow shovel and went to work. The snow shovel wasn’t enough though, as the snow bank had a lot of ice in it. In fact, it was solid ice at the bottom. But I had a mattock in the trunk of my car, so I fetched it and brought it to bear on the situation. It did nice work.

While I was working on that, Austin, our teacher’s husband came by. They just had their first baby a couple of weeks ago, and his wife had dispatched him to the school to pick up some papers or something. He offered to help me with the drainage trench, so I handed him the shovel. We talked about polar explorers as we worked, and in forty minutes or so, the trench was pretty much done. It’s about 30 feet long. We hit a curb and had to jog to the left to get around it (otherwise the water would not drain).

With today’s rain, I got to see if the trench was being effective or not – and I think it was! The water was “only” three inches deep at that end of the lot, compared to the six-eight inches it was two years ago. Also, the trench was full of water.

If nothing else, the trench would be a fun attraction for the kids during recess.

Tonight after I got home I strapped on my snowshoes and headed into our wood lot. On the way, I grabbed a syrup bucket, a maple tree tap, my brace and bit, and a hatchet. I would have gotten a hammer instead of the hatchet, but it was in the basement, and I was already wearing snowshoes. I did not want to try the stairs with 42″ feet, and I didn’t want to take the snowshoes off, only to put them on again.

On the way into the woods, Beth caught up with me. She didn’t know where my one maple tree was, so she followed. I bored a 7/16″ hole into the southeast side of the trunk, about an inch and a half deep. Then I drove the tap into it with the butt of the hatchet. Then I got the hook that holds the bucket and realized… oops. It’s supposed to slip around the tap before I drive the tap into the tree. So I levered the tap back out, slipped the ring in place, and drove it in again. Then I hung the bucket on the hook and remembered that I left the lid in the garage.

While I was in the garage retrieving the lid, I hung the hatchet back up on the wall where it belongs. Then back out to the tree to secure it in place.

Syrup bucket with lid, hanging on the tap.

Syrup bucket with lid, hanging on the tap.

While we were out there, Beth asked me how I could tell a maple from other types of trees. In this case I knew, because I found that particular tree in the summer when it was in full leaf. They are much easier to identify then, but they can also be identified in the winter. I showed her how the twigs grow out from the branches:

Maples are opposite

Maples are opposite

In the case of a maple (and a few other trees, including viburnums, ash, and dogwoods) the twigs grow out of a branch on opposite sides of the same spot. But in most other trees, only one twig grows out from a given spot. The next one will grow out farther up the branch on the other side, and they alternate like that (which is why they are called “alternate”).
Most others are alternate

Most others are alternate

I don’t have any dogwood on my place, nor do I have any ash (much to my chagrin, as that’s the proper species for making snowshoes). I do have lots of viburnums, but none of them are bigger than an inch or so in diameter, and most of them are way smaller than that. Since you can’t tap a maple until it’s ten inches in diameter, it’s not important to distinguish tiny viburnums from tiny maples – at least for the purposes of syruping.

There are only a handful of species of ten-inch diameter trees on our lot: maple, red & white oaks, white pine, and birch. Pines are opposite like maples, but they also have needles, so there’s no confusion there. Birch have distinctive bark. All I really need to tell apart are the oaks from the maples, and I do that by making the alternate/opposite distinction. It’s not that hard.

With any luck, I should have a bit of sap in the bucket by the end of the week. It’s supposed to be cold tonight and then warm up. Sap flows when the temperature dips below freezing at night and rises above freezing during the day. That’s our forecast for the next several days, and I expect it to continue along those lines for the next six weeks or so. At least, I sure hope so!

Tonight Beth and I went to Agway, a farm supply store. I wanted to see if they had any maple syruping buckets, lids, and taps. I found two things. First, they do carry that kind of stuff, but they were sold out. Second, they carry farm toys. That would include things like die cast metal International Harvester Farmall tractors (but no Farmall Cub like Dad used to have). It would also include plastic horses, barns, fencing, stables, etc, and that pretty much sent Beth into a drool-fest.

She wanted to spend her money and I mean right now. But she didn’t have it with her, and I wanted her to learn something about impulse buying. I insisted that she wait until she got home, think about it, and see how much money she had (I didn’t know).

Turns out she has less than any of the toys she wanted cost. I don’t know if that blunted her desire for any of them though. She’ll have to save her allowance, and that might make her think about it a little more before buying the first thing she sees.

Back to the tractors. Dad had a 1949 Farmall Cub that he bought back in the mid-70’s. I think it was the first vehicle I ever drove. After he bought it, he spent a couple of weeks in my uncle’s shop overhauling it. The only thing I know that was still wrong with it when he got finished was that it had a broken tooth on second gear, so when it was in second, it made a bit of noise. I really liked that tractor, and now days I see them on Craigslist for $2500-$3500 or so, and… I want one, even though I have no use for one. It’s a little easier for me to resist an impulse buy when it adds up to four digits (my toys cost more than Beth’s).

And now back to the maple syrup. Last year I knew of only one maple on all my property that was big enough to tap, so I tapped it using a bucket, lid, and tap I borrowed from Ken. I don’t remember how much sap I got from it, but I had a late start. It boiled down to about a pint of syrup. I’m not going to save any money making my own syrup, and frankly, I don’t know how anyone does. For one tap, I was able to boil it down on the stove, but other people have huge evaporator pans that sell on Craiglist for three to four digits. It would take a lot of syrup to pay for that. And then there’s the sap collecting, firewood gathering (I assume that any property with enough maples to make syrup will also have plenty of firewood lying around for the gathering), the boiling down (30 or 40:1) and then the bottling and selling. It seems to me that that’s just a lot of work, and the last time I checked maple syrup sold for $13.00 per quart. I just don’t see how anyone makes money doing that.

I have another maple near my syrup tree that’s almost big enough. They are supposed to be ten inches in diameter and this one is maybe nine. Just as a watched pot never boils, it will prolly take another decade for this maple to add another inch of diameter, but I’m not in a hurry. Even though it would double my syrup output. Over the summer I found another tree up by the frog pond that might be big enough too. Well, if it is big enough , it’s only barely big enough. I haven’t measured it (and it’s a lot easier to measure the circumference than the diameter). If it’s not big enough yet, then I guess I’m already waiting a decade, and it’ll likely take that long anyhow.

I may stop at the Agway in Concord this week sometime, or I might not. If I don’t, then I guess I’ll miss a season. It’s already past starting time, and I don’t know how long the overnight temperatures will continue to dip below the freezing mark. So if I do act, it looks like I’m set for another pint! That would just about pay for a bucket ($5.99) and a tap ($1.50). Move over Donald Trump!

This morning after breakfast I hustled over to Lowes to return those porch lights I bought last week. I’m going to try to stop by an electrical supply house sometime this week to maybe pick up some lights that are not outright junk. A friend at work told me a good place, so I’ll try there first.

When I got home I went out and collected the sap bucket. I had about as much sap as I did the first time, meaning I’d be able to make another half cup or so of syrup. I brought it in, filtered it, and boiled it down starting at about 10:30 am. It was done by 12:45. I also took the bucket down, as we are now pretty much at the end of the sap season. I prolly could have collected a little more, but once I boiled that down, I’d have what? another tablespoon or so of syrup? I might be crazy, but there are limits to my insanity!

Once that was done, Va and I headed into Tilton and had lunch together at Applebees. Then we swung by the grocery store, and then headed home. Then in the afternoon, I loaded all the kids in the car and we went to the church to work on the cardboard canoe.

The first thing we did was take my regular canoe out of the cardboard one. The cardboard copy held its shape beautifully. Then we put it back on the saw horses and started gluing drywall tape to it. Not just over the joints, but over the whole thing. No cardboard will show when we’re finished. Jonathan and Warran took the lead on that. There were several more kids there, so I set them to work laminating up the bulkhead which we will place right in the middle of the boat. That will keep the sides from collapsing in on themselves. I had another group of kids start making paddles. But they soon got bored with that, so I used the nuclear option: make helmets. Yes. Viking helmets. They were all pretty stoked about that, and pretty soon they were also making short swords and battle axes. I’m not sure that’s the spirit the conference was trying to foster, but they do all seem pretty excited.

I also figured out how I’m going to decide who gets to paddle the canoe. First, it will be open to the kids who were interested enough to show up on these past two “extra credit” Sundays. That gives me nine or ten kids. At most we could squeeze six in there, and that’s pushing it. Four might be a better choice. I will further winnow them down by merit points. If the boat survives its maiden voyage, and at this point, I’m quite confident that it will, we will field a second crew. And possibly a third.

They should look splendid in their helmets.