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A Walk in the Sugar Bush

Mud season in Wisconsin is the best time to visit the sugar bush

by Eva Apelqvist

After winter, but before spring, there’s a muddy, cold, gray sliver of a season. The ground is almost bare, yet very little grows. This season is not good for much . . . unless you’re one of those overalls-clad, Northwoods diehards who eagerly awaits the running of the maple sap. If you are, you lovingly set aside this season, “from the Ides of March to the singing of the spring peepers,” for tending your trees.

It’s March 25th when I stomp into the muddy but orderly yard at Steve and Mary Hemshrot’s maple syrup farm in Shell Lake, on the kind of blustery day one might expect when going maple syruping. Most people in our tour group, already gathered around Steve Hemshrot, are dressed in warm winter gear, including hats and mittens.

Hemshrot begins, logically, by showing us how to set a tap. One young boy is equipped with a brace and bit. Mittens off, listening to Hemshrot’s instructions, he begins drilling a hole in the maple with the old-fashioned manual drill. After struggling with the drill, I’m sure he has a clear understanding of why the Hemshrots have abandoned the manual drill in favor of a rechargeable one. But his hole is just the right size and just the right angle, tilting slightly downward so gravity can help in the extraction process. The tap is set in the new hole and a galvanized metal bucket hung on the tap.

We forget how cold it is when we follow the Hemshrots into the 12 acres of sugar bush, a fairyland maple forest that’s lovely to navigate, even through the snow, because of the relative lack of underbrush.

Steve, on the tractor, pulls a 250-gallon white plastic collection tank. Mary, walking with the group, distributes plastic collection buckets and takes us from tree to tree where galvanized metal buckets with funny oversize lids have filled up with sap in the last 24 hours. We empty the metal buckets into our plastic buckets, then into the collection tank. There are almost 2,000 metal buckets in the Hemshrots’ three sugar bushes, we learn, and they all need to be emptied regularly, though thankfully not by us.

Nobody is cold anymore.

According to Mary, only trees 10 inches in diameter or more get tapped; each tap gives about 10 gallons of sap per season. Up to 98 percent of the sap collected is water, and in the end this makes for about one quart of syrup per tap per season.

When the bulk tank is full and the children are happily mud-covered and sticky with sap, we follow the tractor back to the sugar shack, a pole barn next to the Hemshrots’ house. Here, in the sweet-smelling shed—you can almost taste the sugar in the air—we watch as the sap gets pumped from the collection tank to a storage tank, then to another tank that gravity-feeds the sap into an evaporator.

In the evaporator, sap is heated to 219 degrees F, then poured into 5-gallon pails and taken to the bottling room, where it's poured into another heater, run through a pressure filter into a bottling tank, and then—you guessed it—bottled.

The children have been patient, eager even, to drill holes, haul buckets, and walk in the woods. Now their eyes shine expectantly as Mary scoops vanilla ice cream into mugs and drizzles a thick, golden liquid over it—Grade A Medium Amber syrup.

The Hemshrots are often told that their syrup is exceptional, though Mary says she can’t tell the difference between theirs and other producers’ syrup. Still, all of us in the tour group, our hands stiff and our cheeks red from the long walk in the woods, savor the slightly smoky flavor of warm syrup over cold ice cream. And we’re united in our conclusion: this is indeed the best syrup we’ve ever had.


More to See

In addition to the Hemshrots’ farm in Shell Lake, take a tour (and buy goodies made with maple syrup) at these three maple syrup farms:

Maple Hollow, Merrill

Kickapoo Gold Maple SyrupViroqua. This certified organic maple syrup farm offers two March maple syrup breakfasts and wagon rides to the sugar bush; tours by appointment.

For more information about maple syrup farming in Wisconsin, visit the website of the Wisconsin Maple Syrup Producers Association.