Salt Season 2018 and Sugar Wood 2019 Prep

Winter Solstice two days past now and one day past the full moon — winter is surely here. The 2018 salt season wrapped up in late October — most productive season yet with almost a half ton of sea salt made. Expanded the works in May by about 50% to accommodate a large early season bulk order. Weather on the Cape was quite dry this season though areas not far to the west off Cape had a rather wet summer — the thunder storms drenching them having a hard time making it over Buzzards Bay. Not great for the farmers (Matt and Jenny) who own and work the farm where my salt works are and who seemed to need to irrigate their veggie crops pretty much everyday — but very good for salt-making.

Looking at my salt log the other day, I can see the steep reduction in daily production that becomes more and more noticeable around mid-August — the summer temps are still quite warm but the sun angle and duration are sharply declining (now about a month before Autumnal Equinox). Its a reminder that by warm August’s end we’re getting the same insolation as still cold early April when maple sugaring is just wrapping up.

The dry 2018 summer though gave way to a wet fall. This was fine and timely for the end of salt-making season, but created very wet and muddy conditions in the woods in the Hudson Valley at Germantown, which put the ‘kibosh’ on early autumn firewood gathering for the 2019 maple season. So that necessary activity was pushed off until after Thanksgiving and into early December. The inconvenient factors then become snow, ice, and the mixed blessing of cold freezing temperatures. Trees downed and bucked in the Spring are now buried in snow and frozen to the ground. Bushwacking with the old 1986 4WD Toyota pick-up in the woods in deep snow, even with chains on all 4 wheels is … challenging. For example, managed to get the truck stuck in the frozen creek for a day while fording it with a full load of wood on board — rear flat tire — my boots full of creek water — and sun setting over the Catskills.

But once the wet muddy ground solids up after a few continuous days of sub-freezing temps, driving, walking and wood-gathering become much easier. However, every morning the truck wheels are now frozen tight with yesterday’s mud and creek crossings and require an extra hour’s “unfreezing” remediation underneath the truck to get the wheels unstuck and so comes the mixed part of the blessing. The freeze up occurred in the first week of December, after the arduous November bog and slog, and so finally got in our requisite ten cords of sugarwood — rich in red cedar, but plenty of pine, ash, hickory, cherry, oak and some oranged wood hawthorne for good measure.

This last week, back on the Cape, just starting to collect seawater for winter brine-making for the 2019 salt season. One season ends, and two seasons begin. Keeping the maple salty and the salt sweet.

Maple Season Ends and Salt Season Begins

I guess this is how blogging goes when you're doing intense seasonal operations like mapling and sea-salting. Last blog was near the start of maple season (four months ago), and the sap was filling the tanks -- exciting -- operations about to go full tilt and ... pretty much the end of my ability to focus on blogging -- just too busy and wiped out at the end of each day for the next six weeks. Now we're 6 weeks into sea-salt production, a week from Summer solstice -- and the salt works are cranking out salt. Always something more to do  to catch up or at least not get even further behind. No complaints -- just leaves little energy for talking about it in blog world.  But lets try.

2018 Maple Season: Was very good in its own peculiar way. Never any really big sap runs -70- just steady runs almost everyday from mid-February until the end of March. Basically had the evaporator going everyday for six weeks. Sap weather was never great -- never quite cold enough but never too warm either with one early season 70 F day exception. By April 1st, we made a  bit over 100 gallons of syrup -- which makes it one of our best seasons of the last decade. So Yay!

2018 Salt Season: Got things up and started here at the Pariah Dog Farm in Teaticket the last week of April. As usual started by working on the "winter brine" -- bringing it down to salt-ready condition (about 25% salt concentration). Winter's freezing operations gets the brine to about 10% Salinity or a loss of 80% or more of its initial water. But I need the solar and warmer conditions of mid/late Spring to concentrate it further and to "salt off." I've expanded my works in capacity quite a bit this year, and so its been fairly intense. Began actual salt production about 3 weeks ago now -- with very few roof-down days (rainy days) -- so its full bore as usual as solstice approaches. Once the "winter brine" is all brought to salt (probably within next month), things will slow down a tad -- as there is more of a wait between batches as it takes a while to evaporate  100 gallons of raw seawater down to salt (about 10-12 days during July and August). 

Sap in Tanks and Getting ready to Boil

We've had a series of weak to modest sap "runs" (sap flow) since we started tapping out three-four days ago. We now have about 600 gal of sap in the tanks. For us that's about 3 days of cooking at 200 gal day. Until now, we've been leak checking, fixing our tubing and mainlines, experimenting with our relatively new vacuum system - a small diaphragm sap pump. But sap is building up and we need to get moving towards boiling before expected sap runs in next few days. There's at least a day's work to do before that can happen. 

The order of priority of effort, for me, is always: 1) get the sap collected; then 2) get everything else together: arch, pan, tank plumbing, firewood cut and split and stored in sugar house. Get the goods and then do the figuring. 


Brining and Maple Weather-watching

 More than a week into February now.

On the Salt Front: we had one great cold snap and big "ice night" on the morning of the Feb 3rd, temperatures bottomed at about 10 degrees Fahrenheit in the morning. Result was removal of about 400 gallons of ice (or about 200 gallons of water equivalent). In short, the brine got a fair bit saltier overnight. In contrast, last night (Feb 9th) was a modest "ice night" -- low temp at 7am this morning was 15 degrees -- resulting in about 100 gallons of ice removed or about 50 gallons of water. As of today we have now collected 2800 gallons of seawater, and have reduced that to about 750 gallons of brine. I'm hoping to bring that down to about 500 gallons by the end of the ice-making season sometime in March.

Brine Physics Lesson: to make brine (water with a high concentration of salt) in the winter months, we depend on cold temps to freeze the seawater. Average Cape Cod seawater freezes at about 28 degrees F. What happens is that as salt water freezes --the ice crystals that form are fresh (just H2O) -- and the dissolved salt ions in the sea water are released back into the surrounding unfrozen water, making it progressively saltier. Remove the relatively fresh ice and you now have a richer brine or a more concentrated salt solution, which now requires ever colder temperatures as the brine becomes more concentrated. In actuality, the ice does retain some salt in the intersticial spaces between the ice (H2O)  crystals and so some salt is lost in the process of ice removal. By the end of the winter brining, I typically lose about 30% of the initial salt this way, but also reduce the initial volume of seawater by more than 80%, so its well worth the effort.

Maple Weather? Looking at the 10 day forecast - it looks like we've got some weak daytime thaws coming up in the coming week. Its almost mid-February and so should I get out the drills and start tapping trees? I'm not sure yet --don't want to start too early, but then again, don't want to miss some early sap runs. I'll be on my way to the sugar bush at Germantown, NY on Sunday (Feb 11th), just to start getting things ready - firewood cut, split and stacked in the sugarhouse; tubing repaired and readied in the northwest section, smoke stack set up, sap tanks readied and plumbed, sap buckets cleaned and the list goes on -- but the drills, batteries and drill bits are already set -- the essential tapping tools are staring at me, eager to get to the business of sugaring.

Winter Brine and Maple Pre-Season

We're well into Winter brine making now (on the last day of January 2018). So far, we've collected 2500+ gallons of seawater from various locations on the Cape. Certainly, the tried and true locations: In Chatham: Mill Pond and Scatteree, which we only sell in Chatham; In Falmouth: Nobska Point, Quissett Harbor, Waquoit Bay, and Megansett Harbor, which we only sell in Falmouth, Mashpee and Bourne. But, also some new sites in Mashpee and Barnstable: Popponessett Bay and Cotuit, both historic and current oyster grounds.

We started collecting winter seawater in mid-December this winter season owing to some early cold snaps and have continued collection in January. Making ice is the key to brine making, as we remove the relatively fresh ice, which leaves behind a progressively saltier seawater solution. As the seawater becomes saltier, its freezing point drops, so, to make ice, the ambient water temperature needs to be progressively lower as brining progresses.  Point being, I search the forecast for arctic air intrusions and polar vortex invasions getting my buckets of seawater massed. Generally, the colder the better, with important caveats --but that's another discussion for a future blog.

So, with February arriving in a few hours, "maple fever" is setting in now. I've spent a good portion of January in the "sugar bush," as us maplers call our maple forests, getting prepared, maintaining and upgrading tubing and mainlines. October and November days in Germantown, NY were devoted mostly to getting "sugarwood" (firewood for boiling maple sap) cut and piled down by the sugar shack. We burn about 1 cord of wood for every 10 gallons of syrup produced. The firewood is mostly deadfall, a mix of hard and softwoods: oak, hickory, elm, maple, pine and cedar. Also, we did some refurbishing on the "arch," the masonry/earthen stove over which the maple sap is boiled. Our arch's dimensions are about 3 ft wide by 8 1/2 ft long. 

The big question, of course, is when to tap? Depends on the weather. Traditionally, here in Columbia County, NY, I don't like to start tapping before mid-February at earliest, but also not much later than March 1st at latest. Once you tap, you pretty much have committed to a six-week season, as the taps (the holes drilled in the trees) will tend to "dry-up" or heal up in about that timeframe. Right now, about 9pm on January 31st, I'm looking at a forecast that indicates cold weather through the next 10 days, so no tapping plans as of yet, and I hope not to see any "thaw" weather in the up-coming forecasts before mid-February. These days, March is the "maple month" in Columbia County, NY, but with climate change and the vagarities of climate and weather, who knows? In the end, its an "informed," but still an intuitive decision.

First Posting of Wild Blog

Hello All: This is our first posting of "Wild Blog," and very much a test of the system to gain some familiarity with blogging. So, we'll be brief. Our intention is to relate information, histories, personal stories and opinions about salt and maple syrup making as it happens. There very much will be a seasonal aspect to it all and how the unfolding peculiarities of forest and ocean weather, in the Hudson Valley and on Cape Cod, give unique character to the experience of making salt and sugar, as well as impacting the flavors and qualities of these special foods.