On a day that seems more like the first blush of spring than winter, Roy Van Arsdall drills a 7/16-inch hole slantways in a sugar maple and fits a metal spout into the tree trunk. An empty milk jug with a hole cut in it fits neatly over the spout, and within seconds sap drips against the plastic.
"It's running," he says with a smile.
Van Arsdall, 88, has made maple syrup each winter for 10 years, tapping sugar maples for sap at the home near Mahomet he shares with his wife Amy. He became interested in syrup-making after reading a magazine article on the topic.
"I needed something to keep me busy in the winter," said Van Arsdall, a retired University of Illinois agriculture professor.
In this part of Illinois, sugaring season begins in late January and lasts until March — whenever temperatures rise in the daytime and then sink back below freezing at night.
Van Arsdall taps five sugar maples around his home, as well as several more in the neighborhood. He said it's also possible to collect sap from other varieties of maple, though the yield is poorer.
It takes about 40 years for a sugar maple to reach the 12-inch diameter at which it can be tapped. Van Arsdall said several sugar maples in the area have fallen prey to insect infestation.
"We lost four (trees) in the past five years," he said.
When there's a lighter flow of sap, it can take all day for a gallon milk jug to fill. But at other times, "those things may fill three times in a 24-hour period," he said.
At that point, storage becomes an issue.
"Sap will spoil like milk," he said. When there's snow on the ground, he keeps the containers of sap in a snowbank, but during winters like this one he uses a refrigerator.
Van Arsdall collects 300 to 500 gallons of sap each year. About 10 gallons of sap boil down to create one quart of syrup.
He cooks the sap down on an outdoor wood burner he made himself. A pan of sap sits over a wood fire with a sheet of glass to keep leaves or other debris from blowing into the pan. When the sap is flowing, the burner is going "all day, every day," Van Arsdall said — he has to keep cooking because of his limited refrigerator space.
It takes about 3- 1/2 hours for the sap to reach the proper temperature and consistency — syrup, being 66 percent sugar, boils at 219 degrees.
After its outdoor cooking, the syrup is boiled again, this time in a large stainless steel pot in the kitchen. It has to be watched carefully during this time — it can boil over quickly, resulting in a sticky mess.
Afterward the syrup is filtered and then canned in sterilized quart jars.
Last year the couple produced 26 quarts of syrup, most of which was given away to friends and family. Each bottle has a label featuring a photo of the couple standing over the syrup cooker. "We probably don't use but six or eight bottles a year," he said.
So do they eat a lot of pancakes?
"Not too many," Van Arsdall said. "On vanilla ice cream is an excellent way to use it."
"And on waffles," his wife added.
Maple syrup season keeps the couple busy, but they enjoy it.
"That's why I do it," Van Arsdall said. "If you didn't like to do it, you wouldn't do it."
This story appeared in print on Feb. 5.