Maple Sugaring in New Hampshire

A weekend getaway to the White Mountains

Maple sugaring is one of the trickiest agricultural endeavors – while the trees grow all year around, sweet maple sap flows only under certain weather conditions. Some years those conditions last for weeks and there’s a bumper crop of maple syrup. Other years it doesn’t happen at all. And, sometimes, it comes and goes so fast you have to scurry up to the New Hampshire mountains to get your share of the maple sugaring experience.

On our latest road trip out of the Ocean State, Linda and I experienced maple sugaring at The Rocks Estate, on the north side of the White Mountains. There, weather cooperating, the maple sap flows in March and April, the quiet part of the year, when the skiers have shooshed back to their springtime haunts, and the summer vacationers have yet to migrate northward.

The Rocks Estate was once the home of John Glessner, the founder of International Harvester. In 1882 the whole region had been treeless hills, but as iron-making and farming moved to the Midwest, the trees of New England had a chance to regrow. Today, the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests manages over 1000 heavily-wooded acres, including an extensive maple grove.

This maple grove, called a “sugar bush” by those who are knowledgeable in ways of Maple syrup, is the key to the Rock’s new attraction – Maple Sugaring. Just about anyone in New Hampshire who had easy access to maple trees makes a little maple syrup for their own use – at $50 a gallon retail, why not? But for the rest of the world, maple sugaring is a bit of Currier and Ives folk history that the dedicated educators at the Rocks help visitors recreate and learn first hand.

The program begins with a video where we learn about the history of maple sugaring. According to Native American oral traditions, as well as archaeological evidence, maple tree sap was being processed for its sugar content long before Europeans arrived in the region. Native Americans showed the arriving colonists how to tap the trunks of certain types of maple tree during the end-of-winter/early-spring thaw, harvest the sap, and boil it to evaporate some of the water. This activity quickly became an integral part of colonial life.

Typically, maple sugaring would start at the spring thaw. Sugarers would begin by boring holes in the trunks of the maples, usually more than one hole per large tree, insert spouts into the holes, and then hang a bucket from the protruding end of each spout, to collect the sap. Sap would slowly fill the buckets, drop by drop.

Each group of visitors gets to identify a sugar maple, then bore their own hole in the maple tree and taste the sap that collects.

In the old days, the members of the sugaring party would return, to retrieve the sap that had accumulated. It would then either be transferred to larger holding vessels, typically barrels, often mounted on sledges or wagons pulled by draft animals. Depending on conditions, a sugaring party could spend several days to several weeks engaged in these activities.

The sugar bush at the Rocks Estate is a show walk or wagon-ride down the hill from the main educational buildings. At the old sawmill, the education continues with descriptions of modern tapping using tubing, and modern evaporation methods. The syrup is boiled until it reaches the correct density of maple syrup, 11 pounds per gallon, when the boiling sap reached a temperature of 7 degrees F. above the boiling point of water. The density is tested with a hydrometer. If the density is too low the syrup will not be sweet enough and the syrup will spoil. If the density is too high the syrup will crystallize in bottles. When the syrup has reached the proper density, it is drawn off, filtered and bottled while hot.

Of course, a road trip to the north side of the White Mountains is not a day trip. We spent our first night six miles away from the Rocks at the Wayside Inn.

The 170 year-old Wayside Inn has been owned for the last 25 years by Victor and Kathe Hofmann. They’ve created a place that feels like home, with cozy quilts, shelves filled with books, an old dog named Jake, and a couple of cats that love showing guests to their rooms.

Our room had a claw-footed bathtub that we just had to soak in after our trip from Rhode Island, and we slept with the window open, listening to the sound of water rushing over the rocks in the Ammonoosuc River.

The food in the Inn’s Riverside Restaurant is perfect for the country inn atmosphere, with meat-and-potato selections that would be well at home in a well-to-do farmhouse. Simple plating and side dishes makes a meal of roasted duck breast with a blood orange reduction, or pork tenderloin with a mushroom hunter sauce seem familiar.

Breakfast, which comes with the room, gives a chance to taste a little of the inkeepers’ Swiss cuisine with spaetzle (a pasta-like food) or shredded potatoes as a side to eggs.

For our second night, we stayed at the Adair Country Inn. This inn and its restaurant are elegant, placing a high emphasis on luxury and service. It’s across the highway from the Rocks Estate, tucked away from the main road on 200 acres of regrown woodland. The Inn was built in 1927 as a home for the daughter of Frank Hogan, a renowned lawyer in his day. It remained in private hands until 10 years ago, when it was converted to an eight guestroom Inn and restaurant.

Innkeepers Ilja and Brad Chapman and chef Jeanne McCredie have made an excellent peaceful home base for an exploration of the White Mountains. Visitors could spend their entire visit hiking, enjoying the formal gardens, or just relaxing in the spacious common areas. Of course, the Rocks Estate, nearby Littleton and Bethlehem, and the popular White Mountains attractions all give ample reasons to wander.

So if you miss Rhode Island’s maple sugaring season, head north, it may not be too late. The folks at the Rocks Estate, Wayside Inn, and Adair Country Inn will be waiting for you.

The Wayside Inn is online at www.thewaysideinn.com. They are at 3738 Main Street, Bethlehem, NH 03574. Call them at (603) 869-3364.

Adair Country Inn is online at www.adairinn.com and located at 80 Guider Ln in Bethlehem, NH 03574. Their phone is (603) 444-2600.

The Rocks Estate is online at www.therocks.org and is located at 113 Glessner Rd in Bethlehem, NH 03574. Phone is (603) 444-6228.

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