Tappin’ Time!

collecting-sapIt’s almost time to start tapping our maple trees! March is just around the figurative corner. The days are getting a bit longer, the weather a bit warmer—right? It is, isn’t it?—and with all of that comes maple sugaring season!

Last year was our first attempt at the art of maple syrup making. Much was learned—more by error than success—and we are excited to give it another go in 2014.

We are waiting for the temperatures to be above freezing in the daytime, and still below freezing overnight. These are the optimum conditions for good sap flow. Thanks to this very cold winter, we’re pretty late in the calendar year for the first steady string of those type of days to begin.

But it should start soon. The end of next week, maybe?

So we’re gathering supplies (like empty milk jugs to collect the sap, glass containers for the completed product, etc) and we’ll be cleaning the reusable supplies, while also brushing up on the techniques of the process from recommended books and online resources. We have friends “in the business”, so we’ve gathered some tips from them and will be trying a few new things—like not boiling down many dozens of gallons of sap on our kitchen stovetop!—and I am hopeful that this year’s result will be thick, sweet, delicious, golden maple syrup!

As an avid fan of all things winter, it is rather surprising how the prospect of harvesting maple sap to make syrup has actually made me eager for the arrival of spring. (I know, right?! What is WRONG with me?!) I know that really makes me like the other 99% of folks who eagerly await spring’s arrival, but… I do still need (want) it to be below freezing at night. So… I’m not that normal. 😉

Do you have a favorite tradition—new or old—that begins with the advent of spring? Are you a “tapper” like us?

Hang in there! We’re just a few weeks away!

Maple Sugarin’!

maple-sugarinWe’re trying something new this spring: we’re sugarin’ our maple trees!

It’s fun to see how things are made, and in my opinion the best way to see is to do.

The process began a while ago, when we talked about doing it. We live on a small, quarter-acre lot in a somewhat urban-ish setting. It’s entirely possible that our tiny plot of land has the most trees of any other parcel on our block. (Or several blocks.) Appropriately enough for the task of making our own maple syrup, many of them are maples!

After initially assessing the plausibility of our task, we decided to do it! Part of my encouragement towards this particular backyard project comes from college friends of ours (one of whom I work closely with on many web projects) who have been “sugarin'” for years. (They strangely took a break this particular winter… the first winter we are giving it a go…) A couple seasons ago they sent us a sample of their work; it was delicious!

We knew that we would need to put taps/spouts in our trees—later we would learn that they are called spiles—and some containers to collect the sap, and then finally some way of cooking down the sap.

And that’s about what we knew.

Thankfully, the friends mentioned above recently used an episode of their weekly podcast to explain in great detail the wonders (and the challenges) of maple sugaring. (You can listen to it here.) They also recommended a few good resources, including a book called Backyard Sugarin’, which I promptly placed on hold at our local library. All of that came together nicely to help build my confidence towards giving this a try.


And so, on one chilly, late-winter afternoon… I bought six spiles.

It’s a meager, humble beginning; but it’s a beginning.

(A two week adventure through hockey tournaments, three separate family birthdays, and LOTS of really hefty sickness delayed the implementing of this project. That, however, is for a different post. Or… perhaps none at all.)

Early this morning, just after the sun fully brightened the March sky, I decided to tap my maple trees. The book had suggested using empty plastic milk containers to collect the sap (rather than the more expensive option of tin buckets with cool lids) and since we are always happy to find an equal-but-less-costly option, I gladly rummaged through our recycling bin. To my chagrin, there were only a couple containers that did not have that lovely milk-not-quite-completely-rinsed-out aroma, so I emptied the 1/3 of a gallon (or so) of milk in the open container in our fridge into a different container, and was thus able to score two sap collection containers to get us started.

Our property is quite long. It’s a walk of a couple hundred feet from the road to the back property line. The healthiest maple tree on the premises is about five short feet from the back of this long plot of dirt. Now, I say all of this because I was going to need to drill holes. And my only drill is not cordless.

So I needed extension cord. And plenty of it!

I unburied and unwound both hundred-foot, bright orange extension cords sitting in our basement and—sap collectors, spiles, hammer and drill in hands—I headed straight for the nearest maple!

drip2It was mighty chilly this morning still, and with only two containers, and having no idea if this would even work, I decided to stick to the two maples closest to our house. (Half of that extension cord for now naught. At least, temporarily.) I plugged in my drill, tightened the bit, and looked for a good spot to drill.

I knew that it was good to drill on the south or southwest side, as that would receive the most sun. Sun gets the sap flowing. I also knew that sap flows best toward a large root. Figuring that our giant maple would be a good candidate for more than one tap (eventually) I chose that tree first, and found a good south-side, root-below spot to drill my hole.

It felt pretty weird to take a drill to my living tree, I’ll have you know…

I drilled at a slight upward angle, and out came the fresh tree shavings. My bit actually got stuck and came out of the drill! I wiggled it free and made sure to keep the drill speed up a bit higher, and was able to make the appropriate 1 1/2″-deep hole. No sap was flowing early in the morning, so I took my time and gently tapped in the perfectly-fitting spile. It all seemed to be going great! (Aside from the no sap, part…) I hooked the first milk container onto the spile, and headed toward the second maple.

Having gained some confidence from the first tap, I quickly found the perfect spot, drilled (more successfully this time) and hung the second sap collection unit. (A better sounding name, don’t you think?)

I had no idea if this was going to work. Really. I quietly collected my tools and put everything back where it belongs, and went on with my day. There was still more sick care to be given to many members of the family. There was a good deal more parenting to do as the Mom is one of the sicker family members at the moment. There was work to be done as well. A normal, full day of life.

As the day was coming to a close, I remembered the taps.

collecting-sapAbout 4:30pm or so, I checked on the second tap, which is near the front of our property, visible from our front porch.


OK, not full… but it held enough clear liquid for me to use ALL CAPS to relay to you the excitement I felt when my eyes first beheld that sight!

I ran inside to get shoes on and to get as many kids as could amble to see the start of this latest backyard adventure! They quickly finished up a task I requested that they complete, shoed and coated up, and we headed out our front door, camera in hand!

There were gasps of excitement, joyful, exuberant jumping, clapping, and lots of rapid-fire questions. I snapped some photos, and explained the whole process I had gone through early that morning, and we decided to do one more tap following our apparent success!

Kirsten was perhaps the most excited of all four kiddos. (Cam joined us later, unwilling to miss the backyard project party, though he was not conscious for much of today thanks to his current battle with sickness…) Kirstie wore the biggest smile, asked the most questions, and hung on every word of my stories and instruction.

sugarin-campbellsFollowing a very successful third tap—we decided to tap the healthiest maple, the one at the back of our property, and the sap was flowing within a second of the drill first penetrating the tree!—Kirsten discovered the book I had gotten from the library, and began flipping through the pages, yearning to learn more. I saw this and said, “Kirstie, you can read that if you’d like. That’d be great.” At this, she quickly headed for the living room couch, a visible bounce in her gait!

Learning is fun. Doing is also fun. Combined, they are really fun! And learning by doing together… you can’t beat it.

Now hopefully we’ll get the boiling down the sap part right, and have a super-tasty final product!

But even if we don’t… I can unabashedly say this backyard project has already been a wonderful success!

Backyard Ice Rink: Update 2013

Backyard ice rinkIt was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

Well, actually, this year it has not been the worst of times. Sure, we’ve had our travails, but nothing like last year.

This year’s version of the backyard ice rink has been much more successful thanks to wisdom gained from past experience (read: failures) and thanks in larger part to the weather actually cooperating this winter!

(Ice rinks will always fail when the temperature is rarely below freezing.)

In that we’ve had a much more normal winter, temperature-wise, we’ve been able to actually use our rink, and I think learn a bit more for next year, too. For example, we’ve been able to experiment with resurfacing the ice, keeping it cleaned off, and even learned that snow blowers are NOT an ice rink’s friend.

If you’ll recall, last year we (meaning, I) forgot to re-measure the rink dimensions after we extended it… leaving us very short with the pre-measured plastic! Oh boy! Then there was the 14-inch plus difference from one end of the rink to the other, leaving us with no water in one end of the rink.

Wow. We had plenty of issues last year.

There were some things we learned and improved this year, though.


What Worked Well

We had plenty of lumber, a three-year supply of good quality plastic liner, and we moved the rink to a flatter section of our back yard. (Unfortunately that flatter section is a little smaller, so the rink measures roughly 20′ x 34′ this year. Last year it was more like 30′ x 42′, I believe.)

We were able to fill the flatter, smaller rink in less than a day (much shorter than last time) and we got it filled just before a string of sub-freezing days. And so, as you can see, we’ve been able to use our back yard ice rink this year! Fantastic!


What Has NOT Worked…

Like last year, we’ve had our share of failures—though thankfully smaller. Failures are of course the best way to learn, so we’re reminding ourselves of the proverbial silver lining. In this case, I do believe it’s working. (Already looking forward to version 3.0 next winter!)

One thing we’ve learned is that, thought the flatter ground was great, it also happens to be under several trees. This is not a good idea. Throughout the winter so far, leaves and branches have regularly fallen down into the rink. The leaves are certainly unattractive; they are also trouble when they freeze into the ice near the surface. That leaves rough spots at least, and even cracked spots or bumps. Not good.

Also, when the rink was initally freezing, we got nearly two feet of snow dumped on us, all at once. This was good, except that the snow blower had to throw the snow somewhere …

You don’t want to throw it on your rink!!!

We had bumpy ice there for a month! Couldn’t get the ice smoothed out on the side where the snowblower had blown its snow. Definitely be careful with your snow blowing!

Lastly, when first setting up the rink, we have been using the plastic as a sort of “binding” for all the boards. This works fine once the water is in, but then you just have a strange, shallow pool in your backyard until the temperature gets below freezing. (And this allows for more leaves and sticks to collect on the bottom of your strange, shallow pool.) For some reason, I never considered not putting the plastic liner down until it was time to fill the rink! (Which can be done even after the temperature drops below freezing. (Might even be better that way?)

We have been able to use the hose to add layers of water, smoothing out the used and/or bumpy ice surface. That part is good… the bad part is when the hose gets left outside in sub-zero temperatures! Oops! We recovered the hose at the next thaw, but it was lost for a few weeks there.


Live (Do) and Learn

That’s a funny phrase, “Live and learn” … it’s not actually true unless your “living” includes doing. So, we’ve been “doing” for a couple years now, and we have a fun winter of ice-capades to show for it, and several noggins full of backyard-ice-rink knowledge to put to good use next winter. We should have a fantastic rink in year three! Look out!

A quick check of the 10-day forecast shows plenty of lows in the 20s, so there should be some more ice rink fun in our near future. Nice!

If you like ice sports … we Campbells highly recommend you try this project in your own back yard!


Project: Backyard Ice Rink (Part 4)

A few people have been asking, “So how’s that ice rink of yours doing?”

In that most of them live in the same region that we do, and have experienced this unusually warm winter along with us, I usually give them a wry smile and then gauge whether they are truly up for the full story, or not.

I usually gather that they are not able or interested in the full story, or, truthfully, usually I don’t have the time or energy at that moment to utter much more than, “Yeah… sure has been a crazy winter, eh?”

But here, I will close out the Winter of 2012 Campbell Family Backyard Ice Rink story.

As you know if you read parts 1, 2, and 3 of this story, we’ve had our share of difficulties besides the lack of freezing temperatures. (Since the two days of bitter cold days early this month when we filled the rink with water, there have been only 7 days where the high temperature was at or below freezing. And, there were highs in the 50s! In Rochester, NY!)

So clearly, that has been a problem.

But as was mentioned previously, the grade of our land being greater than we anticipated, along with the plastic not being large enough for the rink we made… and then, our attempts to bond two pieces of very un-equal plastic sheets together being thwarted by two ridiculous windstorms ripping apart the seam we had so tenuously bonded.

Ugh. It’s been one thing after another. Simply astonishing. Stymied at every turn, which does tend to get you down a bit… and nearly give up trying.

BUT. And that was a big BUT.

Our kids still love it.

They have been out on the half-rink of ice as many times as they could. Whether using skates or just boots, they play a few periods of hockey, work on their tight turns, or just have the winter fun we were hoping to have in our back yard!

We are really ready for next year!

Really! We’ve learned so much, we know exactly what to do to make the best ice rink (that we can afford!) in Wayne county! We’re excited to try it out. I think we might have the rink ready to go by Thanksgiving weekend next winter!

We have everything we need for our raised gardens in the spring!

We attempted to plant a garden with many great veggies in our back yard a few years back. Much to our chagrin, most of the plants did not do well at all. (I think we harvested seven tomatoes!) By a stroke of curious luck, I happened to see an article in a newspaper from my hometown of Springfield, OH that described all of the trouble we had been having, and attributed it directly to walnut trees. Bingo! We have (too) many walnut trees on our property and several adjacent ones!

So, in a subsequent summer we did cultivate a few self-contained tomato plants on our deck, which was fine, but we wanted to do more. Our best idea was to build raised gardens, but we needed to buy wood, and plastic to hold the dirt and compost and such (and keep it away from the walnut tree roots).

WELL, enter our “ice” rink! We were wondering where we’d store it all summer… and now we know!

When life deals you lemons …

So it’s not been the joy we thought it would be, but we really have no complaints. We’re glad we did it, and it’s fun to see the silver linings listed above. There are several.

There always are.

Project: Backyard Ice Rink (Part 3)

Who knew that this project would have so many hurdles and barriers and pitfalls? I knew it would be work, but aside from our being novices in building an ice rink in our back yard, we have also faced plenty of challenges from the weather!

Check out the forecast: 50º right now, and not a freezing temp in sight!

When are we gonna catch a break?!

The good news is, the kids are still having a blast with it, and what I wrote in Part 2 of this saga will still greatly improve next year’s rink, if we do get to do that. For now, we are happy with our little less-than-perfect ice rink.

We finally got usable ice after about a day and a half of super-freezing temps (10s). And then it was only “usable” by the lightest in our family. The heavier boys (who coincidentally also love using the rink the most) were a bit too much for the weaker ice, and it cracked in a few places under their weight. Still, they would not be deterred and have even set up a makeshift hockey goal for when the cold weather finally does arrive.

For now, we once again gaze out our window at a green lawn, and a surprisingly quickly melting “ice” rink, yearning for much more seasonal temperatures.

We are glad for those who like warmer weather, but not-so-secretly, anxiously awaiting the arrival of real Western NY winter weather!

Bring it on Old Man Winter!

Our still quite imperfect ice, close up

Project: Backyard Ice Rink (Part 2)

(continued from yesterday’s post)

We had heard that some people do just fine by stitching two sheets together with waterproof tape. I did a bit more research online and found waterproofing repair tape was indeed a real product, and might actually work.

And it might have, had the weather cooperated. And, had the second piece of plastic been at least close to the quality of the first.

Once we had pieced our liner together, we placed the seam and the poorer-quality plastic at the top of the grade, where the least water would be on it. (Unfortunately for us, this meant that it would also take way too long to get ANY water on it, to hold it down.)

Before the water, though, we had to paint!

The boys had the fun idea of painting all the hockey lines on their rink. They even had a name (and logo) for their rink! This was probably the most fun part of the entire project! Sadly, the day we were installing the liner and painting, was a very rainy, wet day. So, not much of their art was left the next morning when we began the “Big Fill”.

And I do mean B-I-G.

Forty-five minutes into the “Big Fill”, I went to check on the progress, and it looked like a heavy rain had collected on our liner. Just a small puddle in the deepest end. Wow! Guess I’ll give it a lot more time!

Four hours later… only about a third of the rink had water in it! Deepest part was at most four inches deep. Holy smokes!

Twenty-four hours later of almost constant water flow (we had to stop it a few times because it was reducing water pressure to other things in our house like dish washer, washing machine and toilet!) it was about 10″ deep at the deepest spot, and about three quarters of the rink was covered. Nice! But really? Still not done???

I must back up one more time and explain what I think is the biggest reason.

The day we were doing the Big Fill, was also a very windy day. VERY windy. Like sustained 30 mph winds.

You’ve gotta be kidding me!

The plastic had already been blown off a few times, so I secured it to the frame with staples. All seemed good except wind can get into very tiny places. (And thin, flimsy plastic—like the Plan B plastic we used—likes to blow around!)

Unfortunately, the slow-rising water, and the high-velocity winds (and the poor-quality plastic) were a major setback for our rink. The wind kept whipping the plastic around, so much so that it tore apart the seem we had created with the waterproof tape. (Guess it’s not windproof.) Now there are very obvious holes in a couple spots in the seem, and being slightly submerged, we can no longer apply the tape (it needs a dry surface).

Our last attempt to make this work is to let the very cold air tonight and tomorrow freeze what’s in there (including some over part of the seem) and perhaps let the ice be enough of a seal as we add more water, little by little? The problem with this plan is that the ice will very likely melt in the next week or so (at least a little) … so, will our crazy ice-seam be enough to hold?

No idea. But we are going to be experts on this by next year! 🙂

  1. Get accurate measurements: angles, board lengths, full rink dimensions
  2. Get one, high-quality sheet of plastic liner!!! (Even MORE than you think you’ll need!)
  3. Only apply paint on dry, warmer days…
  4. Allow about THREE DAYS to fill the rink!!! Preferably NOT windy days!

I’m thinking the lessons are not done just yet … but that’s what we’ve learned so far. I’m pretty sure we’ll get to skate on this rink, even if it hasn’t worked out entirely as planned. And without a doubt, it has been a super fun family project the whole time. Unexpected turns of events and all!

Project: Backyard Ice Rink (Part 1)

We’ve got a project underway here at the Campbell home. We’re trying to freeze a large portion of our back yard. (Well, more accurately, a large quantity of water, covering our back yard…)

One thing is for sure: we’ve learned quite a bit of what not to do along the way!

It all started with a slight modification of the original plans.

When we first thought we’d attempt to make an ice rink in our back yard, we thought we’d follow my brother-in-law’s simple rectangular model. But then, being one to investigate online, I found a post with (very loose) instructions for setting up more of an oval rink, so pucks won’t get trapped as easily in the corners. It looked straightforward enough. All you do is add another board, cut in two, on the corners. Easy!

First mistake. 🙂

We determined the amount of wood needed. Even divided it up in the 2 x 8, 2 x 10, and 2 x 12s, according to where they would be placed in relation to the grade of the land. (Which, is probably a tad too steep for an ice rink!) We had it all nicely planned out, and even laid out.

And that’s when I discovered I hadn’t really though far enough ahead…

See, not only did we not account for the different angles needed (two boards cut to make a “corner” of an oval are not cut at 45º angles… it’s true! They’re not!) we—or rather, I?—did not remember that the length of the boards was also an important factor!

So that meant breaking out old algebraic formulas (and some very handy angle calculators on the internets…) to figure out that we needed cuts of 22.5º to but up against the long flat boards, and cuts of 11.25º in the middle of the two cut boards. Nice! The fun part there was trying to set the saw to an angle of 11.25º!

Once we had cut all the boards, we had to fit them all together. Sadly, we did not measure the length of the angled boards very meticulously. What we did was just push the boards out as far as the angled boards “forced” us to go. (This will come into play just a bit later in the story. Stay tuned.) Once we had made our oval based upon that, we discovered that we had about an 8-to-10″ gap left! HA! NOT what we were expecting, but we knew we could fix it later.

Now all we needed was to get the plastic liner.

A few calls to various local hardware stores (and a trip to big-box Lowe’s) revealed that this was not actually an easy part of the process. Not many places have a plastic sheet big enough to fill a rink area of approximately 24′ x 32′. My brother-in-law had gotten a piece big enough for his rink last year at a local store in Buffalo, so I figured I’d give them a call. Bingo! They had it, I purchased it right there on the phone, planning to either make the trip all the way over there, or meet brother-in-law in the middle somewhere.

The biggest issue we were facing at this point, early December, was that the weather was NOT cooperating! No sign of freezing temperatures anywhere in the near future!

This meant that we didn’t make getting that plastic liner a priority. And that would turn into several snafus later down the line.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s the next spot things went south. (Why is the south equal to “bad”?)

Being the generous sort (and quick with numbers), my brother-in-law had a proposal. Once he used what he needed for his rink, the remaining liner would be enough (according to our stated dimensions) for our smaller rink! This is quite generous because the plastic we bought ran just slightly over $100, and that was the cheapest option out there!

I hesitated slightly—no, more than slightly—because I wondered if the dimensions of his rink were wrong, or the plastic might be cut wrong, or we might have the wrong dimensions… so many things could possibly go wrong here, and we’d be out of luck as the place we got our liner would be out of stock by the time we figured it out. But, after much thought, I decided to go with the generous offer, since it sure seemed that we’d have more than enough.

ALWAYS trust your gut. Always.

Once we got the plastic upon a post-Christmas visit with family in Buffalo, we were eager to get it installed in our rink. We had to wait a day, due to inclement weather. (That was slightly encouraging though, as we knew the cold was on its way!)

Two days post acquisition of the liner remnants, the boys and I headed out to Lowe’s to get another board and the remaining stakes needed for the frame. (Unfortunately, it took us three trips to correctly acquire all we needed!)

We cut the board, placed it, and hammered in the remaining stakes. Now it was time to lay out the plastic liner! Whoohoo!

But, huh… is that really going to fit???

Though that small piece of plastic, well-rolled, did surprise us with its coverage area, we were definitely short. By probably about three feet on either side, length-wise.

“I knew it!!” were the only words I could say. I knew this would happen… I should have trusted my gut!

Now, before you go blaming my brother-in-law, read on.

Since it was clearly short, I wanted to know if he had been shorted on what he purchased, or, well, just what in the world went wrong. We broke out the measuring tape and walked it off. “Huh. Look at that…” 40.5 feet long? Weird. Measured the width. 28.5″ wide. Strange!

We had forgotten to measure again, once we resized the frame according to the angled/cut boards (as I mentioned earlier).

Now what?!?!

Sadly, it was unlikely that the 30′ x 100′ plastic we had purchased previously and returned were still available, so we went with Plan B: tape!

(Yes… tape.)

… to be continued tomorrow!