We wake to the sound of the breakfast bell at a lodge in Londonderry, Vermont. It’s the final day of a weekend ski trip for my two college buddies and me, and we’re excited. Today, we will advance from the bunny hill to a mountainside. Nancy, the cheerful one in the bunch, says, “Today we’ll be official skiers!” Patty, the yin to Nancy’s yang, says, “I hope I don’t break my leg.” And I, the voice of reason, ask, “What’s for breakfast?“
Soon we are fortified with pancakes bathed in genuine maple syrup. Here in the Green Mountain National Forest, there are an estimated 13 million maple trees, one of the highest concentrations on the planet, and, thankfully, many are being tapped for this hearty goo.
When our ski lessons are cut short (the generator that powers the lift won’t turn over), we decide to try snowshoeing instead. “Stick to the trail,” the activities director calls out. “Keep the trees with the blue blazes in sight.” Soon after we wave goodbye, we find ourselves awestruck in the cathedral of giant trees–some of which are almost 400 years old.
In no time, we are lost. Forgetting the advice “If you lose your way, stay put,” we step briskly along until our stomachs start to growl. It is past noon. We joke about how many calories we’ll burn off. Another hour goes by, and we are trudging rather than stepping. The canopy of maples is up to 80 feet high. Its embrace comforts me, but at the same time, I feel dwarfed and vulnerable. Another hour goes by. We stop checking our watches. We can’t feel our fingers. Nancy, still cheerful, says, “We’ll see a blue blaze any time now.” Patty, biting her lip, mumbles, “We’re going to freeze to death.” Hoping I’m not delirious, I wonder aloud, “What in the world is that?”
I’m pointing to some sort of cable hanging between two trees. A heavy plastic tube is attached to a spout sticking out of a massive tree. It’s a sugar maple pouring forth sap. We see other tubes, too, and we follow them for a mile until we smell burning wood and boiling sap. In the distance is a sugar shack, one of many in the forest.
We wave wildly at the two figures chopping wood. One fellow comes running, shouting over his shoulder, “Hey, Brewstah! Look he-ah! It’s the three missing kids.” The two farmers bring us inside the shack, where vats of boiling sap bubble over wood fires. We sit at a rough-hewn table, and Brewster gives us mugs of warm cider to thaw our hands. Then he places bowls of patted-down snow in front of us and passes out forks. He ladles thin streams of syrup onto the snow and teaches us to twirl the glassy taffy onto our forks, as we would spaghetti. We pop some good-sized blobs into our mouths. Divine.
Since that college trip back in the 1960s, the average temperature of southern Vermont has increased 2.89 degrees Fahrenheit. What had been the state’s average winter temperature, 18.31 degrees, is now about the average temperature of Montreal. Back then, New England produced 80 percent of the world’s maple sugar and syrup, Canada the rest. Today that ratio is reversed. In order to flourish, a maple tree needs regular cycles of freezing and thawing. Freezing dispatches life-giving sap to its vast root system, and thawing delivers the sap back up to its branches. The National Forest Service predicts that if the environment continues to warm at its present rate, this cycle will be disrupted enough to wipe out Vermont’s sugar maples by the end of the century.
Is it a big deal not to have maple syrup for our pancakes? Of course not. But it is a big deal to see a $190 million industry meet its demise, and so is losing the wood for maple furniture and cabinets, butcher blocks and basketball courts, bowling pins and bassoons. And leaf-peepers could forget about flocking to New England every autumn to witness the maples’ fireworks as they transform the landscape from emerald green to brilliant gold, orange, red, russet. Instead, these tourists will have to keep heading north, toward Montreal, to catch the show.
This winter, as I watch my daughter ladle boiled maple syrup into the bowls of snow set before my grandchildren, I remember that time when the maples saved me, and vow to do what I can to return the favor.
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