It is now the 20th of February and temperatures have dipped to 20 below zero. In Rome, Ohio, of central Ashtabula County the temps dipped to 39 below zero. Enough already! Last year at this time many of us in Northeast Ohio were already headed to the woods to tap. In 2014, we had extremely cold temperatures but they occurred in January. None of us will forget the “Polar Vortex”. This was a new weather term and it quickly became the definition of extraordinarily cold weather. This time around we have to go back 20 years to become reacquainted with a very old weather term “The Siberian Express.” This is cold air that is literally pushed across the North Pole and driven deep into the heart of the United States. The last time we had this kind of outbreak was in 1994. We set a cold record on January 21, 1994. However, that did not affect maple syrup production that year; in fact, Ohio had one of its better years producing 90,000 gallons of syrup in 1994. The only difference was that the cold weather came in January. We also had a hard winter in 2008 and experienced a break out year with 150,000 gallon produced.
The secret to producing syrup in a cold year is to be ready to go when the weather breaks…and it will break. Another thing you may have to deal with is tapping into frozen wood. Trees are like glass, very fragile in cold weather. Drive a spout too hard and you run the risk of splitting the tree above and below the spout. This crack will leak not only sap but vacuum. On the other hand, if your spout is seated too loose, it will need to be reset once the tree has thawed out. Under these conditions it is always better to underdrive the spout than overdrive splitting the tree. In many cases, you will probably need to reset a large percentage of spouts installed under frozen conditions anyways. This is something that large producers deal with annually because they often start tapping early during very cold weather to minimize lost production.
Snow in the woods is another thing that you will have to deal with unless we get a big thaw. The snow can be your enemy and it can be your friend. Snow creates all kinds of problems. Mainlines and laterals can be pinned under the snow and gathering trails may be blocked. In this case, I would much rather have to deal with a few lines under snow than having to clear trails. The amount of snow at the base of your trees is your guide to what has to be done first. With mainlines you may have to do some shoveling in the areas where the lines are close to the ground or if they are pinned by a fallen branch. Be very careful digging out around saddles, you do not want to damage your saddle connections. If you damage a hole where a saddle is connected you will run the risk of creating a vacuum leak. In this case you may have to splice the mainline so that you do not run the risk of a vacuum leak. There is no real good way to seal a damaged mainline at the saddle connection, and these can turn into some of your worst leakage problems. With pinned laterals you simply cut the lines, pull them out from under the snow and reconnect. Try to do this at existing connection points to avoid adding more splices. In many cases the line is down because a limb has fallen on it. This means that all of the connecting points have been stressed resulting in possible vacuum leaks.
In most cases, a few warm days will melt the snow away from the lines. The big thing is to be tapped when this happens. Having a snow pack in the woods can be beneficial in that it will keep your woods cool and wet. A slow melt off of a snow bank will not only keep the woods cool during the day but will promote reflective cooling at night often resulting in below freezing temperatures. A good thing! The slow release of moisture from melting snow is additional moisture to be sucked up by the trees stimulating a good sap flow. Something that often occurs in cold weather is portions of a sugar bush exposed to long periods of sunlight (often southern exposures) will run first and areas that are more shaded like a northern slope will run last. Using the above facts as a guide, get your traditionally warmer areas tapped first and then concentrate on the colder portions. In cold years, the cool areas hold snow longer and tend to run very good towards the end of the season. This can be a real season stretcher. However, do not use this as an excuse to put all of your taps on the warm side of the tree. This is an old wives’ tale and a bad practice. It is always best to follow some form of systematic tapping.
A few closing thoughts on getting around in deep snow cover, aka, snowshoes. I have tried them with mixed feelings. This will be one of the best cardio workouts you will ever experience. Do not expect to go to the metro park, try them out, and then think snowshoeing your woods will be easy. Walking on a groomed trail is way different than walking in the sugarbush. The size of the shoe required is determined by weight. Use as small of a pair as you can in the woods to prevent getting snagged on brush. Yes they keep you on top of the snow but for me it was like trying to walk with a bushel basket on each foot. On our first adventure, my partner and I looked like Yogi Bear and Boo Boo going through the woods. And one of the first things I learned was that snowshoes can quickly turn into skis on a slope. You need to master the side step or risk a dangerous slide into a ravine. Been there done that, not fun! Yes, snowshoes get the job done and will get you across the snow; however, I will leave snowshoes to the thin athletic New Englanders and French Canadians who promote them.
Have a good start to the season and until then stay warm.