It started several years ago, when the “big” kids were just young. Before Randal was born- he’s six now- and the big kids were still in their Treehouse watching years. They were watching an episode of Franklin where Franklin and friends tapped some Maple trees to make syrup.
The kids remembered a few visits to the sugar bush when it was a large community project here at Stoney Point- over 500 trees tapped!- and they thought about all the times we had driven past or cut firewood in the Sugar bush and Dad talked about how the people of Stoney Point had always tapped trees and made Maple Syrup here. From 1942 until 1995, though, the Stoney Point People could not tap trees and make syrup at home. The forced removal of the Stoney Point People from their traditional territories by the Canadian federal government in 1942 abruptly cut the ties of the people to the land. When the trees were first tapped again after moving back home, some of the elders cried tears of joy to be able to taste the maple sap and syrup again!
It is not too difficult to tap trees and make syrup, but it is a lot of work, especially if you do it the “old” way, with buckets and barrels rather than run lines. We weren’t experts by any means when we started, we just had the desire to try and the willingness to work hard.
The kids asked if we could make Maple syrup. My husband and I talked about it with them, telling them how much work it would be; but the kids insisted that they wanted to learn. I remember it was the last day of February several years ago when we first tapped the trees. We only tapped about 40 trees that year; the kids were young and enjoyed helping, but could not do the bulk of the physical work yet.
So, out we went, full of enthusiasm and excitement, three little kids and dog in tow! Alicia was into shovels and just had to bring a shovel with her, digging random holes here and there! The first couple of years we were able to cook the syrup in the big kitchen that was the army mess hall. There was a big boiler in there which could hold a huge amount of sap to be evaporated down to syrup.
After a couple of years, it was no longer possible to use the big kitchen, which eventually was torn down. So, we devised our own cooker using an old tank, some large flat pans and some design Indianuity on the part of my husband, Martin Kewageshig.
He cut a hole in the side for loading the fire and then connected the cut out piece with some hinges, so the fire inside would be enclosed. Then, he cut two holes in the top, just the right size to set our two flat pans in. A hole was also cut in the back to attach stove pipes to. The inside edges around the bottom were lined with bricks to help keep the heat in and a grate placed on top of the bricks to allow for air circulation under the fire. It is quite the get-up, but it works!
When sugar bush season starts, we are all excited and enthusiastic and there is usually a deep blanket of snow all over the sugar bush. It takes up most of our time for about 2-3 weeks as we tap trees; collect, haul and filter sap; evaporate the sap to syrup and cut firewood to keep the fire going. Cooking the sap is an around the clock project and it takes a certain amount of skill and timing to keep the wood fire at a somewhat consistent heat for even evaporation.
All the sap is filtered too, to remove the debris, leaves, and particles that collect in the sap buckets. This involves hours of bailing the sap out of our collection barrels, pouring it through two filters into another collection pail, and then pouring the filtered sap into yet more, clean, collection barrels. As the sap evaporates on the cooker, fresh sap in poured into the pan. It takes roughly 40 litres of Maple sap to render 1 litre of syrup. When the sap is finished and completely turned into syrup, we filter it again as it is poured out of the cooking pans.
After 2-3 weeks of this we are all happy, tired, and content; the house is a muddy mess and we are grateful and excited about our treasure of Maple syrup, our liquid gold! We typically have about 40-60 litres of syrup by the end, depending on how many trees were tapped and for how long the sap ran.
People often ask us why we don’t sell our syrup and many have wanted to purchase some. It can be hard for people to understand why we are reluctant to put a cash value on something we worked so hard to make, especially in this modern world which is so fixated on material value and monetary wealth. The best way I can sum it up is that making syrup is for our family more like a practice of service rather than a commercial venture.
The land we tap trees on is not owned by us. At present it is a communally held territory. In 1995, the people of Stoney Point forced the removal of the Canadian Army from the land and have held the land more or less in common since then. The people who live here and a few others with ancestral connections to the land have begun to rebuild the connection to the land at Stoney Point by harvesting food and medicine and firewood from the bush, including Maple Syrup; and also by holding ceremonies and cultural events on the land.
Some of the equipment and materials we use, also, were a community resource. A portion of the spiles and taps we use, as well as some of the collection barrels we use, are the same ones that were used when the whole community was involved in the syrup making process. Roughly half the equipment we use, we purchased ourselves. Even the ability to access and use the land came about because of the collective efforts of the Stoney Point People to return home and force the military off the land. This could not have been done by a single person or any one family; rather, it was a combined effort of many people and families, skills and resources.
Making Syrup and giving it away freely in the community is partly to honour the sacrifices many people made to protect the land from the military; thereby allowing the land to be used for life giving, rather than life taking. Each year we distribute over half the syrup we make around the community here at Stoney Point.
Living at Stoney Point has presented many challenges over the years. I won’t get into all of this here as there is still a lot of pain and hurt resulting from the hardships that people have lived through in order to return to their land. People somtimes feel like they have little or no resources to work with and this can be discouraging. Many of the things we do as a family, we do because we want to; it is important to us. We also like to demonstratre through action that much can be accomplished with some hard work and determination, even if you don’t have a lot of resources to start with. It is also a reminder of just how much beauty and bounty the land holds. As my husband’s grandmother Pearl George used to say, everything you need to live is provided by the land here.
Living through a struggle like the struggle for the land at Stoney Point can expose one to a lot of negativity. Constantly taking in that negativity and trying to carry on doing something that is hard to do in the face of that negativity can really wear on one’s soul and psyche. An early spring knock on the door which delivers a jar of fresh, delicious, golden brown sweetness from the land helps to remind people of the beauty and goodness provided by the land; of some of the reasons they have walked through this struggle. There are no words to express the contentment in my heart and in my soul to have had the honour in my life to be part of bringing back ancient traditions of harvesting from the land for the good of the people. You simply can’t put a price tag on this.
Every year, we bring kids from the community out to the bush to help with tapping trees and with various aspects of the sugar bush. We have also had requests from people in other communities to visit the sugar bush so they can see how it is done. We do welcome visitors; sometimes it is hard to co-ordinate the timing. I hope that this post will reach some of those from the various territories around who asked to know more about our sugar bush, but who can’t make it out for a visit.