Boiling down a time-honoured tradition

 

Sarah Ladik/NNSL photo Tanner Mandeville helps his uncle Frederick Beaulieu tend fires and watch the pots of boiling birch sap. Mandeville has helped with tapping the trees before, but this is his first year processing the raw sap.

Sarah Ladik/NNSL photo
Tanner Mandeville helps his uncle Frederick Beaulieu tend fires and watch the pots of boiling birch sap. Mandeville has helped with tapping the trees before, but this is his first year processing the raw sap.

Frederick Beaulieu has been at his “smoky hobby” of making birch syrup for 30 years and says it tastes different every year, despite using the same trees, methods and even pots for boiling every time.

Everything about making birch syrup just varies every year,” he said. “Sometimes it takes seven days, sometimes two weeks, and you never know when you’re going to start.”

The process involves tapping birch trees – Beaulieu frequents two stands, each about 75 kilometres out of town in different directions – harvesting the sap, and boiling it down. While maple syrup is produced with a ratio of 40 to one, sap to syrup, it takes double the amount of birch sap to make the same amount of syrup. The final product, however, has a 70 per cent sugar content and can retail for $5 an ounce.

Beaulieu said this year has been a particularly good harvest, with more than a gallon of sap coming out of every tree he has tapped.

The buckets were overflowing when I would go collect them,” he said.

After having two surgeries on his knees, Beaulieu recruited his nephew Tanner Mandeville to help with the sugaring off.

He’s a big help in the bush,” said Beaulieu. “I’m not so stable in the woods and, when I’m carrying two buckets, I can’t even reach out to grab the trees for balance.”

Mandeville has helped tap trees and harvest sap in previous years, but this is his first time learning the boiling off part of the operation. Large pots of sap are boiled over a series of open fires behind Beaulieu’s house in Hay River, and then the syrup is bottled right on site.

It’s pretty fun,” said Mandeville, who came to his uncle’s house after school on May 15. “It’s good to get to know how to do it.”

Although he said he would rather be out hunting most of the time, Mandeville does not regret learning how to make birch syrup.

You have to make sure the fires aren’t too hot so that the stuff doesn’t burn into the pot, but also hot enough so that it keeps boiling,” he said.

Beaulieu’s motivation for syrup-making comes in part from his Dene culture and his desire to keep it alive, and he continues to wonder how the first pot was made.

I think maybe a woodpecker pecked a hole in a tree, someone took what came out, and then maybe left it on the fire overnight,” he speculated. “Maybe an unwatched fire made the first syrup.”

But beyond that, Beaulieu said he likes the peace of the woods where he taps trees and the quiet of the fires in his backyard.

It’s just so peaceful out there, listening to the birds singing,” he said. “And then I sit by the fire for hours and just listen to it burn.”

— Sarah LAdik