Moving Above Zero
We’ve had an exceptionally harsh and lengthy winter here in Ontario, but hopefully it’s almost over now. You know Spring is in the air when you feel a mounting inner joy akin to sap rising, and you can bet sap is rising in sugar bushes province-wide.
A sugar bush is a stand of predominantly maple trees and tapping for sap begins when daytime temperatures get above freezing but nights are still below. Once nighttime temperatures rise the sap stops flowing so you have to hit a sugar shack while you can. The season started later than usual this year thanks to our record-breaking winter weather.Canada supplies eighty-five percent of the world’s maple syrup and that’s a responsibility they shoulder with characteristic Canadian earnestness here.
The best thing about a Canadian winter is that there’s no shortage of bright sunny days, so we wrapped up warm and headed over to Purple Woods Conservation Area atop the Oak Ridges Moraine, where Lake Ontario glitters alluringly on the edge of the horizon.
A gently sloping dirt trail took us past trees studded with silver buckets, loops of blue plastic piping strung between them like decoration for some strange celebration which, in a way, they were – the celebration of Spring, a new cycle of life, in the words of Canada’s indigenous tribes another rotation of the medicine wheel.
Guides in period costume punctuated the route, using props to show how aboriginal people made maple syrup – an arduous and lengthy process where hollowed out logs and heated stones were used to painstakingly heat the sap and condense it into syrup.
The kids loved exploring the teepee, stroking pelts and trying syrup made the aboriginal way, and the guides were happy to reiterate anything we missed, even expanding into other areas when my eldest daughter asked about the dreamcatcher hanging by the teepee’s entrance.
The trail was a timeline that led to a clearing and a scene straight out of a 1600’s pioneer settlement. Cast iron pots hung from crude wooden tripods, heated by fires beneath. “Very heavy’” confided a lady in pioneer couture cloak and bonnet warming herself by the fire, nodding towards them knowingly. The smell of woodsmoke and crackle of firewood filled the air around us.
Various wooden shacks offered the chance to handle toys and games and other aspects of pioneer life. The kids shouldered yokes and buckets, unwittingly absorbing history as they felt the heft of tools, curiosity bridging centuries as they studied artifacts and personal possessions from another era.
They loved the candle making and age-tinted photographs of log cabins whose implacable occupants stared stiffly at the camera. Together we rifled through schoolbooks and provisions in Aunt Penny’s Cabin, our eyes adjusting as the dim interior revealed brightly colored boxes of Blue Parrot soda crackers and Toucan rolled oats, and crewelwork hanging on the wall. It was a good quarter of an hour before we left, having tried out the rocking chair and examined every nook and cranny.
Back out in the woods, up a steep incline, we found a covered area whose walls offered information and illustrations of local flora and fauna. Trestle tables with period distractions – chalkboards and dominos – kept the kids occupied just long enough to rest little legs, then we were off to the final phase – the modern day sugar-shack, all gleaming aluminum and stainless steel.
I’ll be honest, we didn’t spend long there – the present can’t hold a candle to the charm of the past, and everyone wanted a wagon ride. We sat on straw-bale benches and listened for hooves. Of the two teams working, it was gentle giants Slick & Nick who came into view first and within minutes we were clambering into their bright red wagon and swaying with their rolling gait.
The ride was short but travel without engine noise added authenticity to our historical reverie. After stroking and patting our Thank You’s we continued on the circular route back to the main barn for pancakes, syrup and hot chocolate, declining the offer of a ride from an ATV sent from the future to scout for tuckered out time-travellers.
On the way home we agreed it was a great way to learn about the past and plan for the future – we were already thinking about another round of pancakes!
by Aisha Ashraf.
Aisha Isabel Ashraf is a freelance writer and author of the popular blog EXPATLOG – a collection of irreverent observations from her experiences as a "cultural chameleon". It's where you'll find her, strung out on caffeine, humorously dissecting the peculiarities of expat life for her own amusement and the benefit of future generations."
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