Just off the alley behind his home in Cloquet’s Pinehurst neighborhood, John Babineau placed another log on the already-blazing inferno beneath his maple syrup boiling pan. It was a sunny afternoon in late March, and Babineau’s first “boil” of the season.
As he brought the contents of the 50-gallon pan to a steady, rolling froth the wind switched directions, causing Babineau’s small gathering of extended family members to hastily rearrange their chairs to escape the thick smoke.
“I’m trying to get it down to about two gallons,” he said.
Babineau’s plan was to then finish the process on the kitchen stove, where he could more carefully render the liquid down to one final, deliciously sweet gallon of pure maple syrup.
Among those gathered around the fire was Babineau’s sister-in-law Kelsey Kilpo-Vodden, who remarked, “This is probably the best syrup I’ve had, although I hate to give that compliment to him, (so) I’m not going to say it again.”
Just the previous day Babineau had given a tour of his budding urban “sugar bush” operation, and offered a running narrative of how it all began.
“It was one of those ‘Aha!’ moments where I’m out raking in the front yard a year ago last fall and noticed all these maple leaves. I looked up and realized that these are all maples,” Babineau recalled as he gestured up and down the street. “It dawned on me, why not tap these trees?”
He shared how he had then gone to the City of Cloquet to ask about it.
“I told them (the City) that I’d like to tap the trees on the boulevard. They told me that I would just need permission from the homeowners, and I’d be good to go. So, I got permission from the next-door neighbors and those across the street. I literally sweetened the deal for them by telling them that I’d give them some of the syrup,” Babineau stated. “So, last year I pulled from 18 taps, which were on six trees.”
Babineau’s wife, Bekki, remembers it differently:“He must have simmered on it for a while. He’ll get these wild ideas and before I know it, he’s ordering taps for the trees, and they’ll show up in the mail and I’m asking, ‘What’s this thing?’ Because he knows I’ll give him a hard time. So, that’s how it started. But, after we got the syrup from last year and I enjoyed it so much, then I was on-board.”
For this year’s sugar bush effort Babineau started much earlier, visiting all his neighbors that had maple trees last fall and asking their permission to tap their trees. They all said yes.
About three months ago Babineau started collecting milk jugs, cleaning them and getting them ready. He also started buying taps, available for just under $3 each at a local hardware store.
Future son-in-law Mitch Paulson shared how he got involved, as well:“Probably about January or February he talked to me about getting everything prepped and helping out.” When needed, “I’ll run out and go to all the taps and collect the sap. He’ll give me some syrup and I’ll take it to my family, too. They all like it,” Paulson said.
In mid-March, Babineau began to tap the maples in the neighborhood, hanging a jug on each tap, checking to see if the sap was running, and collecting the sap as the jugs filled. From the corner of Avenue D and Chestnut Street Babineau’s handiwork was evident, with jugs seen hanging on trees up and down the boulevards in every direction.
“The sap flows best when the night temperatures drop below freezing and the day temperatures go up above freezing,” Babineau observed.
By emptying the jugs of sap into buckets and bins in the back of his SUV, Babineau realized a main advantage of sap collection in an urban setting versus the forest: “If you ever get a chance to tap maple trees in the woods then you’ll understand how much easier this is.”
Babineau’s neighbors, Pam and Steve Hagen, wanted to be more involved in the collection of sap. Steve Hagen related:“When he came (to our house) he showed us how he does it. He put four taps in each of the maples in the back and three taps in the maple that’s out on the boulevard. We collect the sap from the buckets that are hanging on the trees and put it into larger containers. We’ve built up now close to 50 gallons.”
Pam Hagen added, “That was the most surprising thing. He tapped them and in just a few hours our buckets were full. I didn’t expect that.”
A taste of raw maple sap is like a drink of vaguely sweetened water. Babineau described this, saying, “You can just barely taste the sugar in the sap. It’s about 96% water, but once you boil it down…”
Having collected enough sap for his first boil, Babineau poured out nearly 50 gallons from the buckets directly into the big stainless-steel pan over the fire he was building in the pit behind his home.
Babineau told the story of how he acquired that 50-gallon pan: “I have a boiling pan that I borrowed from a friend of mine. We were out ice fishing one day and I mentioned to him that I was thinking about trying out maple syruping. He said, ‘Oh, yeah, I used to do it. I still have a pan if you want to borrow it.’ And I was thinking that it would be just a little pan…”
A very significant amount of wood was needed to keep this fire stoked. As he brought load after load of firewood to the boil, Babineau confided that keeping adequately supplied has been a challenge.
“I don’t have enough wood, so I’m resorting to using wood that’s donated. These (unsplit logs) are remnants of trees that came down last fall…”
Fortunately, he also found a nearby source of scrap lumber to fuel the boil.
The conversation around the boil was like that around any good campfire. As Dan Vodden, Babineau’s father-in-law, sat near the fire he revealed a secret: “We still have a bottle left from last year. We finally cracked it,” Vodden admitted.
Babineau, out of maple syrup for months and nearly desperate to have more, was surprised by this information, and exclaimed in mock horror, “Now he tells me! What? Alright, no syrup for you!”
In the kitchen of John and Bekki Babineau’s home the final steps of filtering and boiling have culminated in the concentrated, golden product they call “Wood City Maple Syrup.” Now, Bekki Babineau worked to widen her husband’s taste for maple syrup beyond the smothering of just pancakes and waffles, serving him cornbread with some of the first of his 2019 maple syrup harvest. The cornbread recipe had been shared with her by a delighted co-worker after receiving a bottle of the syrup.
The syrup itself was thick and sweet, with just the faintest hint of wood. Neighbor Pam Hagen summed it all up by saying, “It’s delicious, much better than what you get at the store, I think. It’s really good, and it’s such a fun experience.”
With effort and cooperation, Babineau’s urban sugar bush has yielded its rewards. Family, friends, and neighbors have worked and dreamed together, grown closer, and been given a sweet reminder of the bounty to be found in their own neighborhood.