St Croix River Road Ramblings

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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Bottling Syrup

On a snowy cold morning I look on the porch and see 17 gallons of maple syrup sitting in 5 plastic pails waiting to be finished.  

Finishing, for us, is an indoor step.  We cook the syrup to about 5 or 6 degrees above the boiling point of water (variable day to day with air pressure), take it off the big evaporator pan and store it in 5 gallon plastic buckets where sediments created in the cooking process gradually settle to the bottom. 

Boiling syrup has its own texture, fragrance and peril.  Turn away and it rises immediately and overflows the canner, filling the stove burner openings with thick sweet sticky syrup, and leaving the cook with an hour of stove cleaning!

Filtering it immediately, as we used to do, is very difficult, as the filters clog up with a gallon or two of syrup, and we try to do 5-7 gallons batches.  Learning some new tricks over the years, we have moved to a week of settling before pouring off the top of each bucket leaving the minerals and other sediment in the bottom,  reboiling to exactly 7 degrees above water boiling (indicates 66.5% Brix -- sugar concentration in the syrup--the pure maple syrup density), then filtering, bringing back to a boil and bottling under sterile conditions.  This way the syrup filters rapidly and easily and we get sparkling clear syrup.  

The settling is done, and now the cooking has begun with 4 gallons processed yesterday morning before heading off to the Polk County Genealogical Society afternoon meeting at the Luck Museum.   As a convert to Genealogy back in the mid 1990s, I go to services every Monday afternoon 1-4 pm volunteering to preach the word to drop in visitors at the museum.  Every 4th Monday we have a group meeting to reexamine our faith, encourage others, and to spread the Word.     My own goals in Genealogy were somewhat
more prosaic, hoping to have discovered relatives all around the USA and even in other countries, and to cultivate them to the extent they would offer us free room and board on vacations to their area.   I have been successful!

Today and tomorrow, Scott, who is staying at the lake cabin, and I should be able to process the rest of the syrup and store it in bottles.  We bought 16 gallon jugs from Anderson Maple of rural Cumberland, to store the bulk of the syrup this year rather than immediately bottling into the small 8,12 and 16 ounce bottles we normally do.  It is faster, and gives the syrup time to settle even more after our processing, something that occasionally does happen even with settling and hot filtering.  

Within the week we should have the syruping season completed until the fall Ramble sales in late September.  It appears the Eureka farmers market is not going to run this year, so we probably will not sell any other times.  

The apple trees we planted need staking to hold them upright so that is next on the list.  We are debating selling our Pine Island home and moving totally to Wisconsin, so that means clearing that home of the accumulated junk (collections?) and spiffing it up a little to attract buyers.  Probably another year before we get that done.  

Margo may be in West Bend helping her dad recover from his stroke for much of the summer--not certain what level of independence he will reach.  She spends 5 hours a day at the rehab center working with the therapists in getting him walking and trying for recovery.  He turns 89 in May.  She says he has improved and continues to function better with walking, getting in and out of bed and chairs, and so on.  One difficulty is his left side vision has disappeared--the brain doesn't handle signals on that side.  He has had to try to learn to turn his head to the left or what is on that side is really non-existent to his mind.  Difficult as the stroke also has diminished his thinking slightly--sometimes in the afternoon Margo says it is more noticeable.  Overall he is improving, and as long as that continues, she feels she is being a good daughter in helping out.
Margo started geraniums and petunias a month or two ago. They continue to thrive under my "water when they droop" maintenance plan, and soon will be ready for the annual decoration day tour of the family graves.  We have about 20 flower pots on relatives in NW Wisconsin extending to MN and on the week before Memorial Day, take the day off to tour the graves and pot new flowers.  All of those ancestors, working their whole lives just to produce me surely deserves some recognition!

Of course, with her gone, I am slowly reverting to a somewhat lower level of diet, housekeeping etc.  Civilization is just a thin veneer that is quickly lost without reminders that sheets do get dirty and life can be more than paper cups and plates with cooking done by toaster and popcorn popper ;-)

Helping out a fellow Northwest Wisconsin Regional Writer member by scanning in his manuscript, running optical character recognition, and reformatting to book form.  His computer crashed and he lost all but a printed copy.  To get it back into the computer you have to scan and turn the picture of the page of text into actual editable text, and computer software can do that.  You still have to scan each page, somewhat slow, but a good activity to do while doing something else.   Hope to have it ready by a week from Friday when we have our next meeting at Grantsburg, where the writers assignment is to write 500 words or less on "completed," a word chosen at random.    My take on it might be death, the final completer. 

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Lightning and Rain

The first thunderstorm of the season is moving through tonight.  Lots of wind all day, and many lightning strikes and rolling thunder.   

Scott, sitting on the porch at the cabin watching the rain come through, was shocked by a nearby flash-boom, one of those where both are instantaneous indicating very close by.  

Going inside, he found the electricity off and the phone not working (and his cell phone doesn't work at the cabin).  He decided to check the neighbor's yard light, and walked out to the road to look and took some photos of a willow near the sap shed that was the target of the strike.  He took these photos. 

   I copied his camera chip and will add a few cabin porch photos he has taken during maple syrup season.  

Bald eagles clean up a few dead carp on the ice

Sandhill crane

Trumpeter swan 

Friday, April 25, 2014

Spring Walk on the Forty

After planting 25 more trees, took a break in the late afternoon with the sun out and checked out the farm.  Ponds are full and beautiful!

Heavy corn stalk litter prevents erosion.  This field pond usually will be gone in a few more weeks. 

Dub Lake--the 4 acre pond 

Below dub lake the water flows on through to Deer Lake and then to Wolf Creek and the St Croix

Water flowing over rocks and ledges has a wonderful sound

The old beaver dam is breached with an ash tree growing right in the overflow.  

Originally the beaver dam (probably centuries earlier) would have raised the water 6 feet above what it is now. 

Burdocks were the inspiration for velcro. Tiny tenacious hooks to carry the seed. 

  We made a trip to Anderson Maple and bought many bottles including a dozen glass gallon jugs as the next step is bottling syrup.  Alisson told us that a few days earlier, many of the syrup producers said they were at 3/4 of a normal season.  We are at 100% normal 1 quart per tap hole, with the season probably over. 
   We planted 25 of the 30 apple trees this afternoon along Evergreen Av.  If the deer leave them alone (we put them in tubes) and the weather is good, in 20 years we will have a nice long row of flowering Siberian Crabs approaching the driveway.  

Siberian Crabs in bloom 

Lake is Open!

The lake opened up fully on April 24 this year, about 1 week later than normal and nearly a week earlier than last year, April 29th.  The steady rain of yesterday soaked everything and has the grass starting to green up rapidly

We cooked out the last batch of syrup (we think it will be the last batch) finishing it on the main cooker yesterday afternoon.  That puts us at 20 gallons for 75 taps, a quart per tap as we expect in a normal year.  

Today we visit Anderson Maple near Cumberland, WI, to pick up containers for the syrup.  After we take it off of the large cooker, we let it cool down and settle for several days in 5 gallon pails, then pour off the top, bring it to exactly 7 degrees F above the boiling point of water as measured that day (it varies with air pressure) and then filter it, bring it back to a boil and bottle it in as sterile conditions as we can achieve.   That way it will last for many years. 

 Cousin Seldon in cleaning out his family home in Maple Grove 
township, Barron Co, WI 10 years ago found some he had made in the 1930s in the basement--still good tasting and looking fine!

Near Andersons Maple, we stop and visit cousin Albert Hanson.  He and I are just about the same age and share a common ancestor, Olaus Hansson (1816-1898).  His grandfather was Olaus 3rd son, Adolph Frederic, and my great grandfather was Olaus 2nd son, Charles Martin Hanson.   The two brothers families mostly lost contact with each other by the third generation here in WI, but I reconnected in 1999 when I converted to Genealogy, and tried to convert all of my relatives.  Albert and his mother were cousins who made the alter call. 

We plan to bottle some in 8, 12 and 16 ounce bottles, and more in 1 gallon jugs.  A niece is getting married (on Margo's side of the family) and wants to give out small bottles of syrup as wedding guest gifts--so 5 gallons of the best are reserved for that.  

We did 3 batches this year, each with a slightly different, but excellent taste and color.  Early season syrup is mild and light colored and late season is strong and dark.   With my fading taste buds, I like the late season best--I can taste the strong maple flavor!

Wednesday at the Luck Museum, a maple syrup beginner, who attended our February maple syruping session, brought in four samples of syrup for Chuck (another mapler) and I to sample.  Since we help judge syrup at the Polk County Fair, he wanted our opinion on his first year of making syrup. 

The first sample was clear, light amber in color, and very pleasant tasting with what I thought was a butterscotch like flavor dominating the maple flavor.   Since it is easy to get confused with tasting syrups, I didn't say much and then went through the other three.  

Sample 2 was more mapley, and quite good.  Three was also good, but distinctive.  Four was OK, but I thought had a slightly musty type of flavor.   I recognized all of the flavors having tasted many syrups at the fair judging as well as many of my own. 

(Scott and I in cleaning out the sap pan for the season, speculated on its use:   lets see, made in 1960, used for 54 years, average of 4 batches per year of 6 gallons per batch--324 distinct batches ranging from excellent to still sitting in jars on Mom's basement because she couldn't throw them out but also couldn't stand the flavor--about 2000 gallons total. --to put that in perspective, the amount of syrup one might get in one year from 8000 taps).  

Musing deeper on the sap pan--Grandfather (Ben?) Clayton of St Croix Falls, Clayton's Hardware, folded and riveted the pan for Dad.  After a year or two, Dad stiffened the sides by riveting a metal buggy tire rim along the pan rims which stick out a few inches to make handles to lift the pan off the fire.  The rims came from the Armstrong farm, the name of the farm where I have the cabin and taps, probably from a buggy last used in the 1920s.  When the Hanson's bought the farm from Ernest and Edith (Hedman) Armstrong in 1963, in the lane from barn to pasture were the metal remains of two old buggies, two old bobsleds, a farm wagon or two, and of course many horse drawn farm implements.  All that remained were the metal skeletons--the foot step, the rims, the springs, and some bolts.  Dad knew the location of every piece of scrap metal on his two farms, and kept them in mind for any project where they might be useful.  Whereas when Mom saw the store bill looming larger than the milk check, she hustled us into a scrap drive to take to Bair's at Frederic for cash, Dad kept every thing he could from her, knowing it would be useful someday.  I inherited those piles and am trying to decide if the extra universal joint from the old baler is really ready for "Gone Green" over at Frederic or if I might resurrect the 1960s baler...

So, getting back to the syrup tasting for the new syruper, Chuck and I made our evaluations and then asked for the batch details.  Number one was a professional local syruper who does has a few thousand taps out.  "Aha," I thought, "I recognized that flavor--it is the weak maple, smooth taste of reverse-osmosis syrup."  To save greatly on cooking energy costs, sap is run through the RO filter to concentrate it and cut the cooking time.  It works great, but since maple flavor is connected with chemical (carmelization type) changes with the cooking, the maple flavor can be hidden, even with dark colored syrup.  I don't like this!

Batch 2, my favorite, was freshly off the cooker with batch 3 not far behind. Both were pretty good.  Batch 4 was the first and had been stored for a week or two from a very early run before getting enough syrup to cook.  It had been stored in a cooler, but the first note in tasting was the slightly musty taste--not terrible, but not good like the others.  

Anyway, I told the judgee, that most big producers blended their syrup and aimed for a good quality standard taste and look and that is what they decided to do, having only 12 taps out and 2-3 gallons of syrup they planned to give as gifts.  

"What did it cost you?" I asked.  "$350 for a wood stove with a flat top at the hardware, $30 for some big kettles, $500 in labor, and now bottles and other miscellaneous.  Probably double the taps next year and maybe get a flat pan...."   Yep, they are hooked!

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Catching Up Days

The sap stopped running on Sunday but we had gotten behind on the cooking, so Scott is finishing up the last 100 gallons by tomorrow afternoon.  Sap that sits in a few warm days gets a little milky looking as the bacteria and fermentation process goes on.  If it gets too far along, the flavor of the syrup will be bad, but with the cool temps today and tomorrow, we probably will be fine. 
Ice over half of the lake.  Scott has been watching up to 6 bald eagles come in on the ice.  They are eating a few large carp that must have died over winter.  Carp are actually the first to die if the oxygen level drops too low in the winter.  Good way to keep them in control. 

The lake was about 1/3 open this morning and 1/2 open this evening.  I think this is about as late as I can remember for the lake to open, except last year when the last ice left on April 29th (it had opened somewhat earlier and then refroze).    Over the years, we had figured it normally opened before Dad's birthday on April 18th with several recent years actually being open by the end of March. 

Apple trees are a bet on the future.  Even if I don't see them bear fruit, someone will.  Grandpa kept planting until he died, as did Dad and Mom. 
A row of trees along the River Road just north of Evergreen Avenue.  My youngest brother, Byron, planted this row probably 25 years ago or more.  When I see them, I think about him.  He died in a motorcycle accident in 2002 hitting a deer and without a helmet getting severe head injuries.  He was the most interesting of us boys, always doing something different and exciting. 
This morning I planted 2 Wolf River apple trees and 4 Macintosh. With luck and care, they will grow to be large trees.  I don't plant dwarf or semi-dwarf --prefer ones that will grow above the deer browse level.  Then I disked and disked the rough area along Evergreen Av where I plan to plant 30 Siberian crabs for flying wildlife and beauty. 

Stopped to check the fenced in sand garden along the River Road.  Brother Everett and I bought 70 acres from Grandpa in 1968.   The soil is sandy, and without plenty of rain and plenty of fertilizer, is not good for crops.   It does raise wonderful watermelons.   I had a different view this year, looking at hundreds of redpines we planted over the years, but no longer owning the land.  We sold it to nephew Colby in January, passing it on to the next generation.  The logs we didn't cut, the firewood we didn't clear, the trails grown in and the 30 year old pine plantation all passed on.  You can't hold on to things forever, but it is hard after nearly 50 years switching from owner to trespasser. 
The ground where I want to plant the rest of the apples--the old cow pasture, was rough from years of pocket gopher mounds.  Got it down smooth enough so I am almost satisfied to set out the trees.  
Small pocket gopher mound, fresh this spring.  They mess up farm fields by leaving the mounds of dirt.  In their niche in the western prairies, they allow for diversity in the prairie sod--a place for new seeds to sprout.  They are unknown much west of Luck, WI, having migrated in from the west into the original sand prairie along the east side of the St Croix.  Want to learn more about pocket gophers?  Check and earlier blog post: A Gopher Tail  

Spent the afternoon at the Luck Museum listening and watching Jay Bergstrand's very interesting talk on his work with the US Fish and Wildlife service in Alaska beginning in the late 1950s.  Jay, as a sophomore biology student in River Falls, took a summer job along the coast in southern Alaska, camping out along a salmon spawning river scaring off salmon poachers to allow the fish to go upstream to spawn.    Fascinating, well illustrated, and worthy of being turned into a book!   From fishing, flying, policing a frontier village, to living through the 1964 earthquake, Jay certainly had an interesting career in Alaska.  

I thought about my own college summers driving a string bean picker down field after field at 1.5 mph and realized my own experience was sadly lacking in adventure! 


Sunday, April 20, 2014

Easter Afternoon -- The Big Melt

The family gathered at brother Marv's place for Easter dinner and the afternoon egg hunt for the kids.  70 degrees made the day seem unexpectedly warm, and very nice.  

After lunch and the egg hunt, some of us took a walk up Marv's segment of Wolf Creek.   No bugs, no ticks make early spring an excellent time for walking in the woods.  

The Easter egg hunt -- Marv and Sheila hide 200+ plastic eggs with candy inside them -- 10 per kid with their name on each egg, and the kids find them.  The warm weather melted some of the chocolate inside the eggs and the uncles had to take a spoon and eat it to keep the kids from getting all messy;-)

The walkway over Wolf Creek.  A lost fishing bobber here may end up in the Gulf of Mexico

Grandpa planted the pines in 1951. His grandson, Marv and  Marv's grand daughter enjoy them 63 years later. 

 The 6th generation of Hanson's in Wisconsin are growing up!
Where old machinery goes to die

Something interesting here!

Dads and sons --Charles Hanson of Sweden's 5th and 6th generation square off 

 The Finch Family
"The Brown-headed Cowbird is a stocky blackbird with a fascinating approach to raising its young. Females forgo building nests and instead put all their energy into producing eggs, sometimes more than three dozen a summer. These they lay in the nests of other birds, abandoning their young to foster parents, usually at the expense of at least some of the host’s own chicks. Once confined to the open grasslands of middle North America, cowbirds have surged in numbers and range as humans built towns and cleared woods."