Jottings from Janis: Climate change taps into maple syrup season


March 8, 2024

Janis Fairbanks

In their roles as apprentices at Spirit Lake Native Farms in Cloquet, Chris Hansen, left, and Cheyenne Beaulieu are learning the skills necessary to keep the sap flowing using newer techniques.

In Carlton County, there are folks who harvest and process the sap that brings us the local flavor of delicious maple syrup, maple sugar, and maple candy we've come to expect each spring. This year - with the frogs already waking up because the weather is warmer heralding an early spring - the trees should be ready to tap. However, the trees are trying to bud in the warmer than usual weather.

When asked whether climate change would affect maple syrup products this year, some people say it's time for the annual harvest of maple sap, others say "not this year."

Traditional teachings say this early struggle presents stress on the maples and we should let the trees rest and save their sap for themselves to support their growth cycle. Will tapping after the short winter damage maple trees? Will it harm them overall?

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Bruce Savage, a member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, owns Spirit Lake Native Farms in Cloquet and processes indigenous foods including products made from maple sap. He and his crew started tapping trees two weeks ago, which Bruce said was a bit late for the conditions. In a normal year, he does not tap until around March 1.

This year, because of the unusual weather conditions, Bruce checked with Ojibwe members of Keweenaw Bay Indian Community in Wisconsin. They are tapping, so he did too. Bruce was using what is commonly called "the Indian telegraph," finding out what other indigenous people think. In our wider indigenous regional 1854 treaty area, respected elders are consulted for their opinion on important matters.

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In the indigenous community, the knowledge of elders is a crucial resource to teach important skills to youth, skills they may use all their lives. Savage learned to tap trees from Cecelia Robinson, a tribal member born at sugar bush in 1895, when he was a boy. Robinson - who happens to be my grandma - was known for her willingness to mentor youth.

Savage thinks he was 16 the first time he learned to tap trees.

"They dropped me off and left me there," Savage said.

On Sunday, Feb. 24, Bruce and two of his apprentices were outside at one of his sugar bush sites. The young men, Chris Hansen and Cheyenne Beaulieu, are learning the skills necessary to keep the sap flowing using newer techniques than Savage learned as a boy. Instead of using cedar taps on individual trees, a plastic tubing system, pictured behind the apprentices, pumps the sap into an evaporator that boils it down to make syrup. Smaller taps are used, and Savage taps only mature trees.

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Many trees are tapped in a tubing system. Since the sap is also necessary for the tree to nourish its own growth, how much risk is there to a tree when it is tapped earlier than usual?

Fond du Lac forest manager Alex Mehne provided a wonderful set of facts on maple trees, but the outstanding comment he made of the effect of tapping maple trees is this: "If a mosquito bites a big, healthy person, they may hardly feel it, while if they bite a tiny person who already has health issues, the effect could make that person sicker." Both Savage and Mehne believe it makes sense to choose mature, healthy maples for tapping.

According to Mehne, as long as the tree trunk is at least 10 inches in circumference and you don't take more than a gallon from it, it should be able to withstand tapping.

In general, in the summer you can see healthy maples by observing which ones have a full crown of green leaves.

Climate change in our area may affect sugar maples. Fond du Lac Forestry has planted black maples because they are more adaptive to hot, dry weather. Moreover, our maples are protected by the presence of aspen fir, which provides a damp nutrient site that is richer than an environment where dry sites may experience drought.

Mehne's colleague, Natural Resources manager Thomas Howes, expressed similar sentiments regarding the effect of tapping sugar maples earlier than usual:

"My general opinion is that this isn't the first time we've had goofy weather," Howes said. "The amount we as humans take from the tree has never proven to be highly detrimental, provided we're not overtapping a juvenile-sized tree. I've seen a lot of different opinions lately and it comes down to personal philosophy. The one thing I do find encouraging is that at least the general public is beginning to take the discussion of climate change more seriously."

For now, maple trees are safe as they give us our maple syrup sweet treats.

Ozhaawashkogiizhigokwe Janis A. Fairbanks, Ph.D, is a member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior and is an Ojibwe Cultural Consultant specializing in the history, language, literature and culture of the Great Lakes Ojibwe. She served as the inaugural Anishinaabemowin coordinator for Fond du Lac's Ojibwe language program, where she is now the chair of the language advisory board. She is also the Pine Knot News accountant. Contact her at [email protected].

Janis Fairbanks

Spirit Lake Native Farms owner Bruce Savage points out a tiny tap on mature maple trees in his elaborate tubing set up for maple sap harvest.


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