Every week, I will be profiling an extraordinary human being who lives in our community. If you know someone who is doing something interesting with their life, I want to hear about it. Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last year, we profiled Tom Stehr of Sugarbush Hill Maple Farm, who uses the newest and most efficient equipment to make maple syrup. As the maple season wraps up, Doppler’s Laura MacLean is profiling a local family who have enjoyed producing the sweet stuff the old-fashioned way for four generations.
Way back in the bush, off the beaten path, there’s a neat, little, rustic log cabin.
It’s actually a sugar shack, and it was built by Marvin Martin back in the late 1970s. He wanted a place that would pose as living quarters for him and his family when it came time for the annual maple syrup season. For an intense six-week period out of every year, the log cabin/sugar shack would be their home away from home. Of course, there was always room (and delicious home-cooked meals prepared by Marvin’s loving wife, Betty) for other family members and friends who wanted to stop by and lend a hand. It provided all the necessities to be comfortable and all the amenities to be fairly self-sufficient while being hard at work in the bush.
The quaint, log cabin is no longer used the way it once was. No one sleeps there anymore but at this time of year, every year, it’s bustling with activity. The kitchen is still a focal point for the family to gather in and a big window gives Marvin the perfect light when he’s taking on the duty of cleansing the syrup. That’s one of his jobs at the guy who’s been doing syrup the longest. He’s still got a great eye and that final touch is paramount for getting rid of any extra sediments in a batch that’s ready to be bottled. His method is one-of-a-kind and how he goes about the process is a family secret. But it makes for a maple syrup product that is perfect, in every sense of the word.
Making maple syrup the old-fashioned way is a labour-intensive but hugely rewarding tradition that has been carried out by the Martin family for generations. Four to be exact. And it probably won’t stop there. It’s almost as if the passion is inherited. Marvin learned the ropes from his own father, and he’s been determined to pass along everything he knows to his son, John, and his grandson, Curtis.
“It’s a hobby,” says Marvin. And one he takes seriously, but that doesn’t mean the guys don’t know how to let loose and have fun in the bush too. “It’s not for everyone. You don’t tap if you don’t have maple trees. The weather has to be just right before you can start tapping and that’s usually around the middle of March. It’s something you always have to be ready for.”
Marvin’s 83 but he looks 10 years younger than that. He was born and raised here and has been a long-time resident of Ravenscliffe Road. He’s got sky-blue eyes and a youthful glow, which is likely due to an active lifestyle spent mostly outdoors. He knows the bush like the back of his hand, especially the 47 acres of maple bush he owns. He’s tapping on the same property his father did when Marvin was a small boy. A lot of memories are there. Old ones are cherished and new ones continue to be made. It’s sort of a sacred spot. A family heirloom, so to speak.
We used to have a big horse called King and he was a monster of a horse who would pull a sleigh with a big barrel in it to collect all the sap. It was a lot of hard work back then. Everything was done by hand, but we grew up that way. We knew it was coming every year so we kind of looked forward to it… and still do.
There’s a lot involved when it comes to making nature’s sweetest gift, but having the desire to want to actually do it is first and foremost. And then there’s the weather. You want freezing at night and above freezing during the day. It’s a fine balance but it’s absolutely crucial to the flow of the sap. Sometimes, it can become a bit of a waiting game, says John. If there’s a few consecutive days where the temperature doesn’t go above freezing, production halts.
“If we charged for our time, no one would buy it,” laughs Curtis. “It runs smoother when you have a good system.”
For the Martins, making maple syrup is more of a passion than a pursuit for earning an extra income. It’s a labour of love to each of them. And to see how they work together – each man having an important role in the operation – is something to marvel. Indeed, they have developed a system that works.
They tapped 450 maple trees this year, which is up a bit from previous years as they usually tap around 400. Last year, they produced 80 gallons of the liquid gold and this year they are hoping for a bit more. They don’t sell their maple syrup at stores. It’s sold exclusively to neighbours and friends or friends of neighbours who’ve heard it’s simply the best. One lick or one spoonful won’t be enough. There’s definitely something to be said about maple syrup that is made the old-fashioned way. The taste isn’t ordinary by any means.
We’re doing it more organically. We’re collecting the sap in buckets rather than pipe-lining it. In my opinion, that makes it more pure. If there’s any doubt about what we see in the pail, we throw it out. We pick and choose what we see in the buckets and then we boil it as quickly as we get it.
Today is the day the Martins officially wrap up another great maple syrup season. Cleaning up is a full day’s work that requires recruiting about a half a dozen people. There’s buckets and lids to collect and wash and then everything is stored away until next year when the weather is just right. So the sweet stuff can, once again, make its annual appearance.
This year is somewhat bittersweet for Marvin. It will be one of his last seasons making maple syrup. He’s done his part and put in the time. But it’s as important to him that the tradition continue as it is to John and Curtis to embrace it.
“It’s in the blood,” says John.
And the rewards are far too sweet to give up anytime soon.
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