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 [email protected].
He travelled the world as a flight attendant, took part in the Olympics in 1976 as a fearless bobsledder, and now he’s living the dream as a sugar maker.
Tom Stehr, also known as Sugarbush Tom, is passionate about maple syrup. In fact, his passion for the sweet stuff runs as deep in him as sap in a maple tree.
“It’s a labour of love,” says the 63-year-old. “It’s a feeling of love and connectedness to the land and forest. It’s also a symbol of Canada. You can’t get much more Canadian than that. I’m very fortunate. To find something you have a passion for and to be able to make an income from it, you’re a lucky person.”
From the moment I walk into Sugarbush Hill Maple Farm’s Maple Store, it’s difficult to keep eye contact with Tom and to maintain a steady conversation. I want to stare. There’s so much to take in. There’s some interesting trinkets on his desk. He tells me they aren’t trinkets. It’s his collection of spouts. He’s really pumped to show me the rarest one of them all. It dates back to the 1860s. It should probably be under lock and key it’s so rare. There’s a fine display of wooden sugar molds on the wall above his fridge. And then there’s a steel bucket with a white heart painted on it used to collect sap by a couple in the Ottawa Valley area. The gentleman’s fiancé could never remember which buckets she emptied so he drew hearts on them and they affectionately received the name “sweetheart buckets.”
“That story has been verified to be true,” Tom assures me.
He knows his stuff. He has an amazing collection of sap buckets, some dating back to more than 100 years ago. They’re all lined up and each tells a story of a time gone by.
“I’ve been collecting maple antiques for about 15 or 20 years now,” he says.
Tom looks at me. He can tell I’m having trouble focusing on him because I’m looking around at everything in the store.
“There’s a lot to see, I know,” he says. I shake my head in agreement, then let my eyes continue to wander.
His wife, Pauline, who shares the same passion for all things maple, is cooking something delicious in the kitchen. They’re the only people in Canada who actually live in the same space that they produce some 2,700 litres of syrup a year. Guests often comment that their house smells sweet and delicious.
Even though he’s relatively new to making maple syrup, Tom’s extremely knowledgeable when it comes to producing Mother Nature’s sweet treat. This is the Stehr’s third season and every year, right around now, is when Tom’s brain starts kicking into high gear. Next week the sap will start running. He knows hard work and long nights are ahead of him. But he’s not one to stress about the amount of work that comes with making maple syrup. In fact, he embraces it. The rewards are far too sweet to fret about it. After all, this is why he moved to Muskoka five years ago.
Tom uses the newest and most efficient equipment. Inside the sugar house, a reverse osmosis machine is used to eliminate a portion of water that will not be boiled but retain all the sugar of the sap water. He uses a wood-fired gasification evaporator that has a double-burn effect in which wood is first burned and then, by utilizing air blowers, the gases coming off the wood are also burned. Sustainability and using eco-friendly methods to produce syrup is hugely important to Tom.
I love maple syrup for a lot of reasons. It’s so delicious. It’s been part of our heritage and history for hundreds of years. It’s the core of our culture. It’s a basic ingredient. Maple syrup is the only food made from a plant’s sap in the world. And everyone really loves it.
Tom’s love for liquid gold all started when he and his wife made regular visits to her mom’s sugar shack in Beauceville, Quebec about 25 years ago. They were inspired back then by the process of making maple syrup, and the desire to want to do it themselves one day never left. Once they retired as flight attendants, they were ready to leave the city and head to the country. They put out their feelers for the perfect piece of land and came across 100 acres out Muskoka Road 10. They wanted property that had an abundance of maple trees and, indeed, they found what they were looking for. Seventy percent of the trees on the property were mature maples, a general classification of what a sugar bush should be. Another bonus: the property hadn’t been logged too much either. It was destined to be theirs. They built their sugar house from the ground up and managed to stick to their dream even when the road got bumpy.
“We wanted to find land with a good amount of maples, so if we moved somewhere away from our kids the area would be a bit of a draw for them to come and visit us. Muskoka is a beautiful area. We don’t live on a lake but there’s lakes all around us. We knew our kids would love it here.”
The fact that Sugarbush Hill is ranked eighth out of 3,300 things to do in Ontario on Trip Advisor in such a short time of operating makes Tom extremely proud. He also is the kind of guy who can acknowledge his fortune. He’s been able to do what he loves and make a living from it. He knows he’s a lucky guy. Sugarbush Hill is one of the only maple shops open year-round and the biggest in Muskoka. Tom and Pauline offer tours of the sugar house throughout the year. Over the last two years, more than 1,000 people from all over the world have visited them. I think it’s because word has spread about how truly charismatic and wonderful Tom is. Put his wife into the picture and you’ve got a golden couple who have absolutely no qualms talking maple syrup.
“There’s times when I think that everything I’ve gone through has set me up to be Sugarbush Tom at Sugarbush Hill Farm. All of my experiences, from being a shy guy at 20, to now someone who’s very open and comfortable with people… I’d say it worked out just right.”
To learn more about products and the fast-approaching maple syrup season and tours, check out Sugarbush Hill’s website at www.sugarbushhill.com.
During the first weekend of April, Sugarbush Hill will be one of many maple syrup establishments celebrating Maple Weekend as part of Sweet Ontario. For more information on the event visit www.mapleweekend.ca.