The sweet smoke of boiling maple sap once again steams over a twisting northern Michigan highway, announcing to passer byes that Sheen's Suga Shack is open.
After a seemingly endless winter of biting cold and furious blizzards, the sun peeked-out just long enough to trigger sap to overflow the buckets and bags that hug maple trees throughout Odawa country.
It is during the brief maple syrup season--measured in weeks and sometimes days--that friends and relatives pull-off the highway, negotiate the steep hillside path down and slip into the open shack to reignite acquaintances and swap stories.
For Paul Raphael and family, it is a fourteen-year tradition built on generations of knowledge. Raphael was taught by his Uncle Jim. When it came time for his own Sugar Shack, Raphael received the gift of the shack from wife Tanya, the gift of the sap boiler from daughter TaSheena and the gift of maple syrup making from his Uncle Jim.
Part art, part science and part patience, maple syrup making consists of distilling down 40 gallons of clear maple sap into one gallon of maple syrup by balancing a roaring fire with top-offs of frigid sap.
Throughout the yard hang blue bags hovering under metal taps and brimming with sap. Each bag contains a quart or two of sap, which is then collected into five-gallon buckets and toted to the sugar shack's elevated 250-gallon galvanized stock tank. From there, it's just a matter of gravity getting the sap from the tank to the boiler.
In this case, the boiler is a cast-iron wood stove topped with a tray of stainless steel raceways, looking for all the world like a miniature fish hatchery. A roaring fire is built in the stove, the sap heats to a furious boil, and moisture rises through a ceiling vent, preserving the essence of thick maple flavor into a syrup that--during this particular day--takes a good five hours to produce.
"You have to wait until the bubbles turn to a cone shape," explains Raphael. "That's when it's time to pour."
After some dipping with a test stick and some sipping from a copper ladle, out comes the conical cloth filter to be placed under the tap. From here, the syrup is tapped and readied for the next step--the finishing boil to remove excess moisture.
David Wabanimkee, Tanya's father, is on hand to nurse the boil whenever family duties call Paul back to the house. "That's why I boil as much as I can now, to save having to boil too much in the kitchen later," adds Wabanimkee.
Inside the block shack, a radio plays 80's rock music and a half-dozen folding chairs provide seating. A stack of split firewood leans against a block wall scribbled with visitor's signatures and dates. The radiant heat cast from the stove and the woozy steam rising from the sap creates a cozy, sauna-like feel. People pop in and out throughout the boil. Some fetch wood, some tend the fire, others relax.
And when the maple run dry and the last of the sap is boiled, memories of this special week linger on in the bottles of fresh maple syrup that honor tables throughout Odawa country.