#14 – Anne Dunn: Sweet Smoky Blues

Note: Here’s another chapter on Sugaring near Deer River MN. Anne previously wrote on this topic at #6, published April 12, 2009, under the category, Quietings.
I’d been charged with watching the maple syrup cooker so it wouldn’t boil over. There were also three barrels of sap bubbling the steam away. Annie and Laura had just returned from emptying sap so the holding barrel was full.
After returning to camp, Annie began splitting wood while Laura renewed the fire. I was quick to see and eliminate a brief but intense flare. Using a long pole I scattered the flaming wood to cool the fire.
Earlier that day I’d noticed that the sparks clung to the shelter roof and didn’t die out as quickly as I thought they should. I also noted that the fire was swirling rather violently. But with several sugar bush veterans in camp I decided it was not going to be a problem. In fact, I told Laura that the fire had learned a new dance. She smiled and glanced into the flames but said nothing. When she went out to stack the woodpile I was alone with the fire.
Soon I smelled plastic burning. I checked my boots then stepped out to tell Annie and Laura to check their boots, too. When I re-entered the shelter I was hit by a terrible odor. Then the roof burst into flames. Burning tarpaper and melted plastic began falling into our boiling barrels. I shouted “Fire!” and we flew into action. We formed an instant bucket brigade with Annie climbing to the roof while Laura and I passed buckets of sap from the holding barrel. I went back inside and began throwing cans of sap against the inside of the roof. After many desperate minutes we got the blaze under control but there was a great loss of syrup and sap, not to mention the gaping hole in the roof.
On the following day the roof was repaired and we were back in business. The sap was still running and we were still boiling it into syrup. We finished 15 quarts that day.
On Easter Sunday we had a big dinner and egg hunt at the camp and the fire seemed quite forgotten. However, Annie was later presented with a book of spent matches. The award was given in recognition of her being the camp supervisor at the time of the fire.
It was soon decided that we would close down the camp because we had all the syrup we need for the coming year. Usually we close camp when the maple tree buds are as big as squirrel ears but this year we closed early.
We began pulling taps and bagging up catch cans. The cookers and holding barrel were still full. Some of the men said they would finish cooking the remaining sap and the resulting syrup would be given to some of our hard working helpers.
We had opened the camp with a naming ceremony, give away and feast. Now we were closing with a family dinner.
I watched the smoke drift away through the trees and listened to the voices around me but I heard no words at all. I was only aware of a certain contentment that hummed about me. Closing my eyes I felt like a fetus that had been carried into the sugar bush camp within her mother’s womb.
When I opened my eyes I looked up through the bare branches above and thanked Creator for another good gathering. I asked that I be allowed to return to the sugar bush next year and enjoy the sweet smoky blues without burning a hole in the roof.
Anne M. Dunn is an Anishinabe-Ojibwe grandmother storyteller and published author. She makes her home in rural Deer River, MN, on the Leech Lake Reservation. She can be reached at twigfigsATyahooDOTcom