Sweet rite signals winter’s end

The flowing of sap and a reward of pure maple syrup draw Mike Wilkens and his sons to the woods in pursuit of a hallowed family tradition
Ozaukee Press staff

Two Mondays ago, right before warmer temperatures began to take effect, Port Washington’s Mike Wilkens and his two sons made the trek to their 15-acre parcel in the Town of Farmington and trudged through the deep snow into the forest.

“Worst I’ve ever seen,” Wilkens said of the white cover.

They didn’t have a choice. Wilkens knew it was time. Warm weather during the day and freezing temperatures at night meant the family’s annual hobby would soon be in full swing.

Trees — 125 of them — needed to be tapped to collect sap for maple syrup.

The process took a few hours for Wilkens and his sons, Taylor, 12, and Carson, 8.

Despite his construction business starting to pick up this time of year, along with opening his Parkview General Store for the season near Mauthe Lake and running a firewood business, Wilkens is committed to making maple syrup.

“I’ve just been doing it forever,” he said.

Wilkens’ great-grandfather started tapping trees near the family homestead in the Town of Farmington, and the tradition on the same property on Riverside Road along the Milwaukee River has continued each generation since.

Wilkens remembers collecting sap years ago with his grandfather and father. They tapped only 30 trees back then, but it was a slow, manual operation.

Today, Wilkens employs an electric drill to tap the trees, which takes about five minutes to make two holes and put in the collection equipment, and uses four-gallon sap collection bags that he throws away at the end of the season.

Sunday, Feb. 28, was the first time this season Wilkens and his sons collected the sap. They got to work early — leaving their house around 7 a.m. — when the ground is harder and it’s easier to walk through the muddy and snowy trail to reach the trees. Wilkens later fired up his wood-fueled cooker near Boltonville to continue the syrup-making process.

During a good year, he said, it takes 40 to 42 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. Last year was a bad year that required 50 gallons per gallon of syrup.

The ratio depends on the amount of sugar in the trees, Wilkens said, and what causes that to vary depends on who you talk to.

“They claim everything and there’s never an honest answer,” he said. “Everybody has their own theory.”

Wilkens checks on the operation at least once a day for as long as the season lasts.

“A really good tree is about a drip a second,” he said.

Once it stops freezing at night, Wilkens stops collecting. Sap will still flow, but that syrup is only good for cooking. It spoils when it’s 50 degrees or warmer.

Besides the weather, four-legged creatures can present challenges. Squirrels sometimes chew holes in the tip of the bags to eat the sap. Turkeys, Wilkens said, see their reflections in the sap, so “a lot of times they’ll peck it.” Deer will play with the bags. Once the sap is on the ground, other animals such as raccoons come find the stash.

It’s not uncommon for Wilkens and his sons to see deer while doing their work, and Wilkens said “bald eagles fly up and down the river.”

The trio empty the bags into barrels and use a tractor to make the 500-yard trip to their truck near the road. The sap is then delivered to the sugar shack to be boiled at 219 degrees, the ideal temperature to make syrup.

While the sap cooks, Wilkens and his sons gather more firewood or run errands. It takes a while to reach the right temperature and goes faster with more wood on the fire.

When it’s ready, the syrup gets bottled in Wilkens’ licensed commercial kitchen.

Each tree provides about one quart of syrup. Smaller trees will defrost faster but also stop quicker, while large ones take longer to get going but are slower to freeze.

They could tap 350 trees on the property, but Wilkens only has so much time to do the job. During the offseason, he clears brush so the trail to the maple trees remains passable.

Wilkens sells the syrup in 12-ounce and one-quart bottles at his Parkview General Store, and his family keeps some to eat. French toast is the boys’ meal of choice, and they like hard candy made of nothing more than “cooked down syrup,” Taylor said.

Wilkens’ business partner and friend, Brian Zettler, uses some of the syrup to make sausage.

“It doesn’t compare to what you get at the store,” Wilkens said.

The syrup’s shelf life makes it easy to keep, but Wilkens doesn’t need any storage space.

“It never goes bad but we never have any left,” he said.

That, he said, is why the operation has expanded to 125 trees.

He is hopeful his sons keep the tradition going.

“It’s something that got passed down to me and hopefully they keep doing it,” he said.



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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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Port Washington, WI 53074
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