The sun hasn't begun to poke through the tree-covered horizon as we make our way down a dirt path through the quiet Wisconsin woods. At the end of the trail is a shack, just as at-home in the woods as the trees next to it, with a sort of soft smoke billowing out of one side. As we move in we see that the smoke is actually steam with a subtly sweet scent rising from a vat of boiling liquid to the roof of an overhang then pouring out into the morning air. A tall figure half masked by the steam sees me approach and turns to meet me. Larry Prahl greets us warmly with a firm handshake and an enthusiastic smile on his weathered, bearded face. He's excited that we've come so early and is eager to invite us into his world of sugar shacking-the annual process of harvesting sugar maple sap and boiling it down into pure maple syrup. It's not a business for him and far from a tourist destination, but rather a deep seated passion and even a way of life.
Larry had his first boil thirty seven years ago, tapping just one sugar maple and carrying the raw sap out of the woods on horseback. A skilled carpenter, he built a shack dedicated to the boiling process a few years later with additions slowly being added through the years. The homey hodgepodge of a cabin carries it's own unique charm, filled with rough wood, deer antlers, oil lamps, and trinkets, complete with the warm feeling of a wood stove and years of camaraderie. He hasn't missed a year since 1978 and has developed a core group who help with the various duties or at least keep the shack warm.
The friendship among Larry and the other men has grown through years of sugar shacking and their common participation in modern day rendezvous-- local get-togethers inspired by the wilderness meetings of the 1800's involving fur traders, Native Americans, and Mountain Men. Larry and the others fall into the latter category, some of them sharing stories of tomahawk throwing, sewing their own clothes out of animal skins, and the like.
Years have passed but the tradition has remained the same: a ritual to end winter's hibernation and usher in the spring. The sap begins to flow each year when daytime temperatures begin to rise above freezing and overnight lows drop back down below freezing. Between Larry's and a friend's stand of sugar maples, 400 gallons of raw sap were harvested this year, which boiled down to 13 gallons of pure maple syrup. He never sells the syrup-- just gives it away throughout the year to friends and family and those who help with the process. It's a precious gift considering the sticker price of pure maple syrup versus it's high fructose corn syrup counterpart, not to mention the dedication and passionate labor behind each jar.
Although we're decades younger and come from different worlds, we're welcomed in as friends. By the end of the night, Larry has repeatedly invited us to come back any time. The night closes with celebration and the enjoyment of several well-deserved homemade wines--dandelion, rhubarb, raspberry, blackberry--all a toast to a new season and another harvest.