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.