Keeping it Real: Some Days in the Sugarbush Suck

Working on the land can be glorious and I love maple syrup season. On beautiful days during maple syrup season, the cranes are calling, other birds are singing, sap is flowing, and spring flowers buds are peeking above the soil, the forest is alive with growth and life. But, not all days are like that. Sometimes days just suck, and sometimes that sucking is a more literal than we’d like it to be. One recent 24 hour period in the sugarbush was like that.

It started simple enough. We drove the tractor and tank trailer into the woods on a sunny afternoon to begin collecting sap. As we were collecting, I jumped onto the tractor to drive down the trail to the next collecting spot, hit the ignition button and nothing happened. I waited a bit, and again, nothing. We kept collecting, hauling sap further, and then tried it one more time with the same result. I have about zero mechanical skills so we walked back to the farm to talk with my dad. After finishing up some other tasks, we walked back out to the tractor to assess the situation. We figured the batteries must be dead. I walked to my parents’ house to get the ATV to cart the batteries to the farm for charging. En route to the sugarbush I hit a massive mudhole, burying the ATV above its wheels. Fortunately I was close enough to the edge of the mudhole that I could rock the ATV to solid ground, but in the process covered myself and the ATV in a layer of mud. When I finally got the batteries back to the farm, they tested fully charged, leaving us to believe the starter was dead. That required a couple hours of taking apart due to the difficulty of the location of the bolts. By that time, all the shops were closed, so the next morning my dad took the starter in to be checked. The shop assured him the starter was shot, he purchased a new starter (over $500) and spent a couple hours installing it. Once installed, he hit the starter button and nothing happened!

All during this time, we were having the heaviest sap flow of the season. Sap was running like crazy and we were unable to collect. As a result, buckets were overflowing, we were wasting the produce we depend on.

So, onto the next option. My dad has a smaller tractor that he uses around the farm but it doesn’t have the clearance or power of the tractor we use for sap collection. But, it was our only option at this point. We needed to be collecting sap. We drove the smaller tractor out to the sugarbush, and I started collecting again - the buckets we’d emptied the afternoon before were already full again! - while a couple of the guys who help us played with the other tractor. Fortunately(?), they figured out the starter issue: the cable from the battery was bad. Using jumper cables, there were able to bypass that bad cable and get the tractor running! By that time, we had a full tank of sap to return to the sugarshack. We decided to take back both tractors given the need to replace the cable on the “big” tractor. That was a fortunate decision, maybe the only one of the day. We led with the big tractor with the smaller tractor pulling the tank full of sap. Part of the way out, the small tractor got stuck, not able to clear the depth of the ruts in the road and sucked into the muddy soup. So, we disconnected the tank, pulled out the little tractor with the big one, and returned with the big tractor to get the tank. This was perhaps the best part of the day :O.

After unloading the sap, we returned to the sugarbush with the big tractor realizing we’d have to keep it running during collecting as we couldn’t easily restart it. We started filling the tank again, retrieving overflowing bucket after overflowing bucket. We reached the point in the sugarbush were we had to drive down the path a bit and turn  through a gate to get to trees inside a fence. As we were progressing through that section we hit another “soft” spot, burying the tractor up to its back axle. We worked for an hour to free it, pulling with a truck, stuffing branches into the rut, etc. only to more fully bury the tractor, the mud sucking the tires down deeper so that by the time we finished everything was covered in mud, the trailer hitch was a foot or more below ground level, and we were out of options. We had to shut off the tractor not knowing how long it would be before we could get it out, but with the bad cable that meant that it couldn’t easily be restarted until the cable was replaced, setting in motion a series of expenses and efforts before we could begin collecting again.

During all of this my dad was attending a meeting out of town, and at this point I needed to head back home to Stevens Point. I felt terrible. I called my dad and left a message apologizing for leaving him a massive mess that he’d have to deal with. Not sure how he would, but hopefully with bigger equipment (from my uncle) and a lot better luck than we were having. And, all the while sap in the rest of the sugarbush would continue to overflow and likely begin to spoil with the warm temperatures.

Most times work in the sugarbush is wonderful. But the reality is that some days working with equipment on the land (and water) are like this. Farmers, loggers, fisherman, and maple syrup makers know this. The maple season is intense and, fortunately, short. By the time we get to the end of the season, we’re ready for it to be done, and days like this only accentuate that feeling.

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Jeremy Solin