41 years of making syrup

By BILL ZIEGLER

For The Daily News

IRON RIVER – Many people from the Upper Peninsula look forward to maple syrup season all winter long.

Outdoor enthusiasts are making their own maple syrup from maple trees in their backyards or at their deer camps. Most people love the taste of pure maple syrup on their pancakes and waffles.

If you don’t want to work that hard, but still love the taste of pure maple syrup, there are a number of local sugar bushes operating in Iron and Dickinson counties.

I was invited out to the Brule Valley Sugar Bush at Brule Lake in West Iron County recently.

Dave Lindahl of Iron River and 97-year-old Herb Johnson operate the Brule Valley Sugar Bush southwest of Iron River.

The two have made maple syrup since they got interested in it 41 years ago in 1973. They started small at their camp on Brule Lake as a hobby operation.

“Otmer Erickson from West Iron County taught me how make maple syrup,” Lindahl said. “I bought some used maple syrup supplies off Telephone Time to get started.”

Lindahl and Johnson still have some of the hand carved wood sap spiles they bought on that occasion.

At first they used metal coffee cans but “we had to empty them more than once a day when the sap was really running. We also cooked on the ground and out in the weather during the early years of the Sugar Bush,” said Lindahl.

He was referring to a crude evaporator pan on a sort of metal framework over the fire with metal on the sides to hold in the heat.

Eventually, the Brule Valley Sugar Bush upgraded from the coffee can buckets to sap gathering bags.

The large plastic bags are a more inexpensive alternative to the old traditional 2.5 gallon metal buckets with rain covers. Lindahl also said they upgraded their evaporator to two modified (open topped) barrel stoves with flat pans sitting on them to hold the sap.

The Sugar Bush partners said they always made their syrup in the past and gave it away.

“The people we gave it to would show up each year with their empty maple syrup bottles hoping for a fill up,” Lindahl said. “As upgrades were needed and our expenses went up we had to start charging for the maple syrup.”

Lindahl said they finally bought an efficient sap evaporator set-up.

The newer wood-fired evaporator “will boil down about 25 gallons of sap per hour.”

It should be noted that it takes about 40 gallons on average to produce one gallon of maple syrup.

Herb Johnson noted that Lindahl also built a nice new sugar shack so they did not have to spend long hours in foul weather boiling down their maple sap. That was especially nice this year with snow, rain, and lots of windy cold weather so far during this maple syrup season.

Since both of the “Sugarmen” are not getting any younger, they converted much of their sap gathering from buckets and sap bags to plastic tubing.

The sap flows downhill in plastic tubing to a central storage tank in a large part of their maple sap gathering operation.

Instead of having to empty buckets in the snow and mud each day they just pump the sap out of the storage tank into another tank mounted in their pickup truck.

Lindahl said they collect sap from 400 taps. The sap comes from two separate locations, one near Brule Lake and the other from Morris Meyer of Iron River.

They normally range “from making 40 to 65 gallons of maple syrup per year. Last year was our record year; we produced 135 gallons of syrup,” Lindahl said.

Sap production varies so much from year to year. Lindahl noted they “had a bad year two years ago like everyone else in the area.”

At the time of this interview the sugar bush had produced 65 gallons of maple syrup making it a good year.

It takes Lindahl and one of his younger relatives about a month of work in the off season to gather and split all the hardwood firewood for a years sap boiling.

They said they try to stay “two years ahead on their wood supply, so they always have enough seasoned dry wood.”

Johnson helps Lindahl during long hours boiling down hundreds of gallons of sap into maple syrup. Herb regularly adds wood to the evaporator to keep the sap boiling.

Despite Herb’s age at 97 years, he is keeping up his end of the work load.

The pair are proud of their advanced maple syrup filtration system.

They acquired a power filter about a decade ago to improve the clarity of the final product.

Lindahl explained prior to that, they were having some issues with “sugar sand” and some precipitant in the syrup.

“We had to re-bottle some of our syrup to eliminate the precipitant. Now our bottled maple syrup is a crystal clear amber color,” he said.

Lindahl and Johnson bottle their maple syrup in several different size decorative bottles and plastic jugs.

The syrup is available at Lindwall’s Chevrolet Dealer in Iron River and at Lindahl’s residence (phone 906-265-9444). The Brule Valley Sugar Bush also allows informal tours.

If you want to see how your maple syrup is made, just give them a call.