White Earth, maple syrup harvest is sweet rite of spring 4-30-07

CALLAWAY, Minn. (AP) - There was gold in them there hills, and Bonnie and Clyde were making off with a load of raw ore.

“Bonnie, give Clyde some help!” Doug Fineday shouted to the two draft horses pulling a wagon through the twists, turns and bumps of a forest road made a muddy mess by the spring thaw.

The horses were big, but so was their load.

Hundreds of gallons of tree sap sloshed and splashed in the wagon's big plastic tank, the dramatic ride the first step in the sap's journey from clear, watery soup to sweet, amber treat.

The White Earth Land Recovery Project's maple syrup harvest isn't the only one in Minnesota, but it holds special meaning for members of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe.

“The trees come alive, but so do the people. We get to put them to work every spring,” said Ron Chilton, sustainable communities director for the land recovery project, a nonprofit organization founded in 1989 to strengthen Ojibwe culture and buy back land for communal use.

The project holds about 1,700 acres in community trust, including maple forest and land that is used for growing Indian corn and other indigenous crops. Into the woods

The monthlong syrup harvest, a spring rite of the land recovery project for about the past decade, has sometimes been on trust land, but this year a private forest was used, with the owner receiving a cut of the syrup as payment.

On a recent morning, nearly a dozen workers armed with 5-gallon pails headed into a stand of maples near Callaway.

Crunching through the remnants of winter snows, Pat Wichern carried a bucket in each hand as he hiked around trees tapped earlier with tiny spouts.

Blue plastic bags suspended beneath the spouts collected sap that seeped from the trees overnight.

Wichern went from trunk to trunk emptying bags into his pails.

The harvest is an ancient tradition among American Indians, but the blue baggies are a nod to modern technology.

“The bags don't freeze solid like a can will, and the sap seems to stay clearer in the bags,” Wichern said.

Each time after filling his pails, Wichern emptied them into one of several tubs scattered throughout the forest.

Sap left in the tubs was collected by the wagon as it circumnavigated the sugar bush, the term given to areas where maple trees grow.

Wichern, a wagon driver in previous harvests, handed over the reins this year to Fineday, who apprenticed for six seasons.

Horses have it over machines when it comes to getting around in the forest, Wichern said.

“A truck or a tractor will tear up the ground. A team of horses, they can just pull that wagon right through there.

“It's actually easier on the forest, and it's easier on us,” Wichern said.

From the wagon, the sap was transferred to a truck for the trip to an evaporator a few miles away in another wood.

Also called a boiler, the evaporator used burning logs to heat the sap above 200 degrees.

As water in the sap boiled away, the heavier, sweeter elements settled to the bottom of the apparatus, where they were drained off, yielding the light golden syrup cherished by pancake and waffle lovers.

The reduction process is simple, but care and attention are required to get it right, Chilton said while demonstrating the evaporator to a group of visiting students.

The approximately 2,500 gallons of sap collected that day would yield more than 100 gallons of syrup, Chilton said.

Sap is sweetest when it first begins flowing in trees, usually in late April or early May when temperatures drop below freezing at night and reach the 40s and 50s during the day.

Early in the harvest, it takes perhaps 30 to 35 gallons of sap to produce a gallon of syrup, Chilton said.

Toward the end, when the sugar content drops, it will take all of 45 to 50 gallons to make a gallon of syrup, he said.

Uncapping some freshly brewed product, Chilton hinted to the students that they might want to sample it.

After a pause, several students dipped fingers into the glimmering goo.

“That's good,” one girl said, licking her finger clean.

From the evaporator, raw syrup was put into pails for the short trip to Callaway and the land recovery project's new syrup bottling facility, “new” being a relative term.

The building is actually the former Callaway School, which closed in 2005.

The land recovery project purchased the structure for $275,000 with the help of a loan from the Midwest Minnesota Community Development Corp.

At the Callaway site, the raw syrup is stored in coolers until a sufficient number of orders are received. Ultimately, it is pressure-filtered and bottled for sale.

Besides serving as a place to store and bottle syrup, the former school houses offices for the land recovery project and Native Harvest, which markets the syrup and other products, including wild rice and a variety of fruit spreads.

The goods are sold through a catalog, over the Internet and at the nearby Minwanjige Cafe, which is also owned by the land recovery project.

Food is also given away, said Winona LaDuke, the organization's founder and executive director.

“We have 170 elderly families that receive food from us every month,” LaDuke said. Maple trees and the syrup they provide have always been a part of Ojibwe life and, hopefully, always will be, LaDuke said. “We want more syrup producers in our region to keep that unique nature of our ecosystem.

“That's a pretty great gift, so why would you want to log it?” she asked.