By RAYMOND J. STEINER
OVER THE YEARS I’ve given my readers a “peek” into my life behind my role as editor of this publication — “Splitting Wood” back in March of ’96; “The Stone Wall” in May ’04, “Autumn in New York” in November of ’07, and “City Boy, Country Boy” in May of last year — a life that I jealously guard along with the solitude it guarantees me. If you’ve kept track over the years, I’ve given glimpses into my home and environs that is situated on a 2-acre plot on a dead-end road about half-way between the villages of Woodstock and Saugerties, New York — even some first-hand glimpses to those who’ve managed to break my barrier of isolation for a short visit (the “stone wall” described in May of 2004 serves as a visible warning to the idle curious).
Anyway, this time I want to share another peek into my life in the woods — a visit to the “Sugar Shack” about a mile down the road from me. Many don’t know that it is, in fact, not Vermont but New York State that leads the country in the production of maple sugar — and one need only visit Platte Creek Maple Farm’s “Sugar Shack” in Saugerties, New York to see why. Set back a few hundred feet from the road on a piece of woodland riven by a meandering brook, the “Sugar Shack” is a one-story wooden building that deceptively hides a high-tech operation which converts raw maple sap into one of America’s favorite pancake toppings behind its rustic walls — pure maple syrup. For country-living cognoscenti, the maze of plastic lines running from surrounding sugar-maple trees and converging on the “Shack” give away the game that is largely hidden behind leafy foliage during the rest of the year. But come early Spring — when cold nights are followed by warming days — the sap begins to rise and the shack begins to fill its waiting containers. Then the day comes when smoke arises from the open-end gable atop the roof and all the neighbors know that the process has begun! This year, the event was heralded by an open-house featuring free pancakes, sausages, ham, and — of course — fresh maple syrup! It was not long before the little parking lot and adjoining woods were awash in cars and people — Cornelia and I among them. We wondered at this close-up view of the building and operation — having passed it almost daily on our way to the Post Office but never having actually driven in to take a close look.
We are not exactly greenhorns when it comes to making maple syrup — having tapped the maple trees on our own property in our early years and boiling down the raw sap into syrup — a ratio, incidentally, of 40 to 1 — i.e. it takes forty pints of raw sap to make one pint of syrup — and a considerable amount of labor in getting and cutting wood for the process during the preceding season. We did that for several years, until the sheer labor of it finally got to us. The next best thing then, was to visit the “Sugar Shack” — its two overhanging eaves on both sides of the structure sheltering the fire-stove-sized cut logs. As we approached, several young bloods were steadily feeding the large cast-iron wood-burner sitting in the middle of the floor inside, while others cooked up food and skimmed the boiling container of fresh sap being converted into “country sweetness” into waiting cruets — trying to keep up with a hungry horde led by their noses and appetites taking it all in. Yep — give me the rural life; you can keep your city traffic, crowds, parking meters, and noise. I’ll just visit now and then to take in a promising art exhibit.