It took a five hour drive down the Klondike Highway, a 14 km uphill hike, four small breakdowns and three bleeding blisters, but when the smell of camp smoke and the sound of motors reached my senses, a wave of relief rolled over me.
I made it in time for dinner at Uncle Berwyn’s Birch Syrup Camp. A tall, wiry man introduces himself as Lyndsey Berwyn Larson, and he welcomes me to the campground. There is a fire roaring in the sugar shack, and next to the camp stove stood a wooden picnic table. There is a wooden shed, too, which I later find was the kitchen.
It’s the 10th season of the birch syrup camp, and Larson says he started his business as a modest endeavour.
“It started with making soda pops. I wanted to make an all-natural root beer from the boreal forest. The thing I was missing was something for a sweetener.”
Larson learned sugar can be made from birch sap. Since one litre of birch syrup requires 100 litres of sap, he realized it would be an unfeasible soda sweetener for a lot of pop. But, Larson’s interest was piqued, and he thought about producing birch syrup commercially.
He apprenticed with some Alaskan birch syrup-makers, and learned how to make his own.
“I spent a couple summers just booting all over the Yukon — canoe trips, hike trips — everywhere just looking for the best birch stands. And this was my favourite one.”
Uncle Berwyn’s Birch Syrup Camp has a three to four person crew each year. One of them, in her second season, is Renee Fourquette, who has the highest birch route of all. It’s about a kilometre hike up from camp.
“I met Berwyn…through a friend of a friend, she says.” We were sitting down at dinner, and he was telling me what he does out here, and I thought he sounded insane and awesome.”
They kept in touch, and here she is.
The next morning, she took me up on her route with my own two buckets, and boy, It was a hard climb. The lower part of the forest was a maze of tubing attached directly to the trees, leading the sap down to the sugar shack, where it’s boiled into syrup.
Sap is collected in buckets in the upper forest, above the tubing.
“We have different routes on the hill and each route has about 200-250 trees on it, and each route is collected every single day by one person,” explains Fourquette, as she limberly reaches the top.
“You come up in the morning, you walk up the hill, you get to your route and you start collecting. And you go to every single tree with two buckets and you dump the sap from the tree into your buckets, and then continue on collecting.”
Though she kids about loving the torture of running up and down the hill, spring is another thing Fourquette loves about collecting sap:
“The season — the actual collecting with buckets, making syrup — lasts between like, 12 to 20 days. But the season of work is about a month to two months. When we first arrive here, sometimes it’s negative 20, and when we leave, it can be plus 20, and I feel like we’re such a huge part of spring. Every single day you get to watch the teeny tiny changes I would have never seen before.”
I stopped to catch my breath at the top of the hill. The view was incredible, and my ice cold, slightly sweet birch syrup was the best drink ever.
Down at the sugar shack, Larson was in charge of processing the sap to syrup.
“The sap collected ends up in the sap tanks. From there, it goes into what’s called a reverse osmosis membrane,” he says.
In this process, water molecules are used to create pressure. This concentrates the sap, which is then fed into the concentrate tank. The pure water from this process is put into water tanks for camp use. From the concentrate tank, the sap is fed into the evaporator, which is a big wood boiler.
The boiler feeds on around two to three cords of wood everyday.
“Basically, in one end goes concentrated sap,” he says.
Larson says that after working its way through a maze of troughs and pipes, the sap comes out the other end an “extremely concentrated, almost syrup.”
Since the sugars in birch sap burn close to the finishing temperature of birch syrup, the almost-ready syrup is transferred into a finishing pan and onto a small stove, where the heat is controlled and even. The syrup is filtered, and the finished product is sealed in buckets. The syrup is bottled in a commercial kitchen in Whitehorse.
As I linger next to him, Larson as he boils down the last of the syrup, and a malty sweet smell rises from the liquid. Paired with the roaring warmth from the wood boiler, it was heavenly. Larson poured a little syrup into a plastic cup, and gave it to me. It was sweet, but not as sweet as maple syrup. The tinge of bitter in the after-taste was just wonderful.