The pandemic may have put Arctic Harvest’s spring birch camp on hold this year, but that’s not stopping them from keeping the birch tapping tradition alive in Yellowknife.
Arctic Harvest – which makes Sapsucker Birch Syrup – has hosted an open house at its birch camp for the past 10 years. There, people learn about birch sap and syrup: from the process of tapping trees and collecting sap to turning it into the sweet stuff.
“It’s a fantastic family activity,” said Mike Mitchell, co-founder of Arctic Harvest. “It just allows people to connect with one of the harbingers of spring or the changing seasons.”
“Kids love seeing water drip out of a tree, it’s just like this really visceral experience,” he added. “And then eating things from the land is always really important but it’s also connective, it makes you feel like you’re part of a bigger thing.”
Due to social distancing requirements and a ban on outdoor gatherings over 10 people, Arctic Harvest cancelled this year’s camp. But they wanted to continue supporting tree tapping – a traditional NWT activity that Indigenous people have long practised.
Now, Arctic Harvest is offering free spigots and hard copies of instructions on how to tap trees and make syrup. Lesson plans can be found online.
“[It’s] a little thank-you for people that have supported us buying our syrup and a way to share the love a little bit about what we like most about spring,” Mitchell said.
He said he’ll likely tap some trees this year, but not at the scale usually undertaken to make syrup.
“We do it because we love being in the bush. Being in the bush in May is the best time of year,” he said.
“You see different waves of birds, you see the change from a snowy bush to a dry understory, you see the leaves pop.
“It’s like a rite of spring for us.”
A chilled pitcher of sap
For those interested in trying their hand at birch tapping, Mitchell explained there are two species of the tree in Yellowknife: Alaska birch and paper birch.
“Basically if there’s white peeling bark, it’s a fine tree to tap,” he said.
People should look for mature trees at least six inches in diameter, he added.
“I always say you don’t ask a kid to donate blood, you don’t ask a baby tree to donate sap.”
Mitchell said people can tap birch trees in town but residual pollution may affect the sap. In his experience, “it’s not dreadful” but those with concerns may want to venture farther out.
Mitchell said the trees Arctic Harvest taps are just outside the Dettah road turnoff, adding they have permission to do so from the Yellowknives Dene First Nation.
The territorial Department of Environment and Natural Resources says tapping birch trees for syrup is considered a non-destructive harvesting activity so it does not require permits. Tree tapping is allowed on public lands managed by the territorial government. If public land is under a lease, the government urges people to contact the lessee for permission.
People can pick up spigots and instructions for free at True Value Hardware. Pails, drill bits, and other supplies for tree tapping can be purchased, as can bottles of Arctic Harvest’s birch syrup.
Mitchell said you won’t be able to get enough sap from one or two trees to make syrup, but he encourages people to try the process to see how the sap boils down. The sap itself can also make for a sweet treat.
“It’s really nice making tea or coffee out of it, it’s just got a real smooth and slightly sweet flavour,” he said.
“Chilled in the fridge, if you have a pitcher of birch sap to drink? That’s really nice.”