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At-home maple syrup operations become a spring trend for Thunder Bay neighbours

The sight of Johnny De Bakker boiling gallons of maple sap in his driveway has become an annual event in the Mariday Park neighbourhood in Thunder Bay, Ont.

Families with strollers and dogs in tow stop by to peek at the steaming pot resting on a roaring propane burner, while others check inside the sap buckets resting on an old maple tree in the front yard.

“It’s not something that a lot of people do, but I think it’s becoming more and more popular for people to tap their trees at home. But, you know, certainly a lot of interest from the neighbours,” said De Bakker.

“People want to stop and ask questions and that kind of thing. You know, unfortunately, I’m just an amateur, just a guy who’s got a pot boiling on his driveway,” he added while laughing.

De Bakker and his family have been tapping a decades-old silver maple tree in their front yard each spring for the last four years, and it’s a trend that’s picked up across the neighbourhood.

The people with the at-home syrup set ups wait for a temperature range of about -5 C and 5 C before tapping into the trees.

Maple season off to a sweet start for some

De Bakker said things were off to a slow start this year for his own operation, but in other parts of the country maple syrup producers have been hard at work with high hopes for the season ahead.

at home maple syrup operations become a spring trend for thunder bay neighbours
Maple sap buckets can be spotted all across this northside neighbourhood in Thunder Bay, Ont. The people behind the at-home syrup operation joke about changing the name of the area from Mariday Park to ‘Maple-day Park’. (Olivia Levesque/CBC)

John Williams, executive director of the Ontario Maple Syrup Producers Association, said “every bush is different” in terms of sap production this season.

“Last year was one of the worst years on record, so if you’re comparing to last year, this is a boomer year. It could actually turn out to be a record year if the temperature keeps going the way it is,” he previously told CBC News. 

But it not about the seasonal yield, or stocking shelves for the at-home maple syrup producers in Thunder Bay.

“That’s sort of why we started the process,” De Bakker said, referring to the family and neighborhood aspect of the at-home operation.

“My daughter’s six now, and so it’s fun. We go out and we check the buckets together … and it’s sort of something that the whole family can do together,” he said.

Backyard hobby helps with ‘doldrums’ of spring

If you walk around the northside neighborhood in the northwestern Ontario city, many homes have sap buckets fixed on their trees. The growing trend in the neighbourhood was started years ago thanks to Dick Henderson, who lives across the street from De Bakker.

at home maple syrup operations become a spring trend for thunder bay neighbours 1
Johnny De Bakker stands beside a pot of boiling maple sap in his driveway one Sunday afternoon. He’s been making maple syrup at home for four years. (Olivia Levesque/CBC)

“He did it for a number of years. And he told me that he was not going to do it anymore and I wasn’t satisfied with that. So I decided it was my time to buy my own buckets and get a little set up and do it on my own,” said De Bakker.

LISTEN | CBC Radio visits ‘Maple-day Park’ in Thunder Bay

Now Henderson offers some friendly tips and tricks to the neighbourhood syrup operations, after doing it for about 10 years. Though he doesn’t claim to be an expert.

“We started off with, I think, milk cartons and little wooden spigots. And then we went to the high tech stuff like Johnny has here now…and yeah, full blown activities now all around the neighbourhood,” said Henderson.

at home maple syrup operations become a spring trend for thunder bay neighbours 2
Johnny De Bakker says last year his family managed to produce 6 litres of maple syrup from a tree in their front yard. They enjoy the process so much that De Bakker has planted more maple trees on the property. (Submitted by Johnny De Bakker)

After graduating from milk cartons, Henderson said there have been many successful seasons of sap runs, while other seasons were not so great. Especially with the sometimes unpredictable and harsh winters that bleed into spring in northern Ontario.

One year, Henderson’s family produced 45 average sized bottles of syrup which was shared with numerous neighbours.

“I think that’s what kind of piqued everybody’s interest when they tasted the good stuff, you know. But we had a lot of times that we had bad stuff we did not share,” he said.

“It’s fun, it gets us through, kind of the doldrums of spring. It’s great for the neighbourhood, especially the kids,” he added.

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