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The spirit of the maples - MessAge Media: Features

The spirit of the maples

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  • The spirit of the maples

    In the midst of spring as the snow begins to melt around the base of the trees, Joel Sydnes can be found outside enjoying a good cigar as he places another log on the crackling fire of his wood stove cooker.

Posted: Monday, April 29, 2019 12:29 pm

Down the trail, a modest sugar shack surrounded by red oaks and maples lies in the northwoods of Aitkin. In the midst of spring as the snow begins to melt around the base of the trees, Joel Sydnes can be found outside enjoying a good cigar as he places another log on the crackling fire of his wood stove cooker.

Pure maple sap emits a smokey sweet aroma as it rolls to a boil in the 30-gallon stainless steel pan. He pours another bag to the batch and gives it a stir with a long-handled spatula.

On a sunny 40-50 degree day following a hard night’s freeze, a smaller maple can fill a 3-gallon bag with its sap, Joel said. Larger trees can fill up to three 3-gallon bags.

Over the course of the season, Joel’s collected 250 to 300 gallons of sap. Each 35-40 gallon batch will produce roughly a gallon of maple syrup when cooked down.

“It shortens the winter,” Joel said.

He set out to begin tapping maples in mid-March when nearly 2-feet of snow remained on the ground. Initial efforts to establish a walking path down the hill to begin tapping were covered by the drifting snow.

First, he’d drill holes at a slight upward angle into the brown, knobby bark on the southwest side of the maples. “It’s where the afternoon sun is the hottest,” he explained.

Depending on the size of the tree, one to three spigots were hammered into each. “I leave the younger trees alone because tapping them can damage them and stunt their growth,” he said. “Younger trees also don’t produce as much syrup.”

Next, the collection bags were hung from the spigots, ready to capture the sap when it began to flow.

Accustomed to hard work, Joel was raised on a dairy farm outside of Swatara on the Big Willow River. His parents purchased the property after Joel’s father returned from serving in the Army during WWII. Born on Oct. 16, 1947, to Norman and Verna (Pratt) Sydnes, Joel was one of six children.

His younger years were filled with chores such as waking up early to milk cows, putting up wood to heat the house, and making fox and goose trails in the pasture with his sisters after the day’s work was done.

As a teen, Joel helped his father with logging in the winter and farming in the summer. Although he admitted there was a lot of hard work, Joel has fond memories of putting up hay in the field or hauling logs with his father.  

“I loved being out in the woods working with Dad. As for farming and logging, we were partners. We did it together,” Joel said.

After Norman broke his neck, he had to give up farming and logging. The family kept the property but moved to Tulsa, Okla., while Norman attended Spartan Aeronautics School to become an aircraft instrument technician.

After returning home to Swatara, Joel graduated from Hill City School in 1965 and joined the Air Force. Two years later, Norman died at 53 years old and the old farm property sold.

When Joel returned from the military he began working for International Business Machines, the largest computer organization in the country at that time. In 1971, Joel married Kathy (Devorak) Sydnes. Their daughter, Cameo, was born the following year in July. Now, they have two granddaughters, Sydney (Lil ‘Syd) and Natalia (LaLa) adopted from Russia, who they visit often.

While Joel lost his interest in farming some time ago, he still finds working outdoors to be enjoyable –even spiritual. A love for the outdoors is something he hopes to have instilled in his daughter and granddaughters for years to come.

“Kathy enjoys the outdoors, too, but not rustically,” Joel said. “She tends to a vegetable and perennial garden. We grow everything from string beans, to carrots, rutabagas, tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, blueberries, black raspberries and more.”

Their efforts come full circle at the dinner table when they sit down to eat a plate of homemade waffles made with homegrown blueberries, and topped with pure maple syrup, Joel explained.  

“I don’t look at it as work. Physical labor is fun if it’s outdoors,” Joel said as he turned the valve to release the boiling sap through a filter and into the bucket.

“This batch is about done,” he said after taking a lick from the spoon. “Sweet.”

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