Richard MacPhee, left, and Max Newbie of Woodville Mills in Kings County inspect their maple sap as they boil it into syrup. Their old-fashioned operation is popular with Islanders and tourists alike. Guardian photo by Heather Taweel
It is silent in the woods at this time of year.
There are no birds, no rustle of leaves overhead.
How could there be? The buds are only just beginning to form their tiny nubs at the ends of scraggly branches on Island trees.
Now, the dripping of sap into metal buckets is one of the only sounds that dare to break the silence of a wood still in hibernation.
"You're standing there in the woods and all you can here is that ping, ping, ping," Richard MacPhee says as he checks his buckets for sap.
"You have to hear that sound to appreciate it on a still evening."
The Island's sugar maples are just about done releasing their sap for the season, but work is only half-finished for Richard MacPhee and Max Newbie of Woodville Mills in Kings County.
Their old-fashioned maple syrup operation keeps them busy at this time of year.
The two are most likely found gathering up the last of the year's sap from their
400-odd taps scattered throughout their shared woodlots.
Or they're back in their sugar shack, boiling down the sap to make a perfect grade syrup.
Big industrial operations no longer use metal buckets like theirs to catch maple sap anymore, Newbie said.
Big maple syrup businesses in Quebec and New Brunswick use up to 100,000 taps and attach plastic tubes to their trees to collect sap.
"They don't use the old-fashioned bucket way, they have pipelines going from the trees so it ends up looking like a mini oil refinery," Newbie explained.
But the idea of a network of plastic pipes cutting through their woodlots doesn't appeal to the two maple syrup makers.
They prefer this more old-fashioned way of doing things.
There are only about two or three small maple syrup operations left on the Island.
MacPhee's main business comes from his apple orchard.
But when he saw a gap in the market for Island maple syrup, he partnered with Newbie to turn his syrup-making hobby into a small side-business.
Now they produce gallons every year and sell them to tourists and B&Bs.
The process is painstaking, but the product is tastier than the industrialized syrups, Newbie says.
Approaching a tree with a tap and metal bucket attached to its side, he lifts the bucket lid to see how much sap the tree has given off.
"See that? That pretty much tells you it's the end of the season," Newbie explains, pointing to the few inches of clear liquid resting in the bottom.
The season usually lasts about a month and a half, but this year's cold spring left Newbie and MacPhee with only a few weeks of running sap.
So they waste no time in gathering up the day's drippings and pour it into a holding tank that runs the sap into their sugar shack.
Inside, it's boiled down for hours until the right consistency is reached.
It can't be too watery, but they mustn't let it scorch either.
A subtle but present smell of caramelized sugar fills the sugar shack.
This is from the steam that rolls off the rolling boil of maple sap for 12 hours a
day. When it reaches the right temperature and thickness, the syrup is filtered
twice before it's bottled and sold.
MacPhee and Newbie have been doing all this for 11 years and don't plan on stopping anytime soon.
Newbie doesn't see it as work, but rather as a tradition he enjoys carrying on year after year.
"It's kind of a rite of spring," he said.
"And it's a nice thing to have lots of maple syrup on hand," MacPhee added.