For Doc Scranton, maple sugaring boils down to hard work and sweet syrup.
By John Johnston, Associate Editor
It’s January, which means Doc and Laurie Scranton’s Tiffin Allegro Bus motorhome is parked at Paradise Oaks RV Resort in Bushnell, Florida. The Scrantons, F219098, will spend much of the winter there, with Doc in a light shirt, shorts, and a pair of sandals most days.
But by the first of March, with winter just starting to loosen its grip on the Catskill Mountains, Doc once again will persuade his wife — they’re both 81 — that they should return home to Delhi, New York. He’ll immediately head to their nearby farm, put on long johns, and, if necessary, snowshoes. Then he’ll venture into the woods to drill 2,500 taps into maple trees before the first sap run of the season.
“When I get to 2,499, I’m very happy to see that one,” he said. Indeed, making maple syrup is a laborious process. Doc has been doing it seriously since 2001.
From about the second week in March to the second week in April, about 10,000 gallons of sap flow through a cat’s cradle of blue plastic lines strung between maple trees on the Scrantons’ land. The sap eventually makes its way to the sugarhouse, where a stainless-steel, wood-fired evaporator must be fed with logs for hours on end in order to boil the sap until it becomes syrup. It takes at least 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.
Rather than stay in Florida with other retirees, Doc always feels compelled to head north when maple sugar season rolls around.
Doc — his given name is Richard — is a veterinarian by trade. For 12 years, he and Laurie devoted themselves to their practice in Gouverneur, New York. Both put in long hours. Laurie admitted and discharged animals, dispensed medicine, did kennel work. The Scrantons felt the strain of keeping the business running while raising their two boys.
RVing offered their only respite. They started with a truck camper, then moved to trailers, before eventually buying a motorhome. They are now on their third Tiffin.
When the daily grind of the vet practice became too much, in 1977 Doc took a job teaching in the veterinary technology program at State University of New York at Delhi, and they moved to the south-central part of the state. One of the college custodians fancied himself an expert in making maple syrup, “and he kind of conned me into doing it,” Doc said.
What began as a hobby on leased land morphed into much more. First, Doc searched for property that would allow him to enlarge his operation. “We have some mountains here. I think I walked to the top of most of them, looking for a piece of land that would be suitable for what I wanted to do. Most of the woodlots I found had been cut over, and the maple trees were gone.”
It took 10 years, but a Realtor finally found what Doc was looking for: 250 wooded acres, 14 miles from Delhi. The Scrantons bought the land, “and that’s when he went berserk,” Laurie said, laughing. “We built the new sugarhouse and bought the new evaporator and had somebody string $10,000 worth of (tubing system) lines for us while we were in Florida.”
In 1998, Doc retired from teaching and began devoting all his energy to maple sugaring. Laurie explained: “He’s a workaholic, for one thing. And he loves to be out in the woods.”
Said Doc: “We get pretty bad winters here. It’s nature. It’s cold. It’s wet. And sometimes we end up with about 3 feet of snow. We have a small bulldozer. Sometimes we have to use that to open up the road into the woods. Once we open that up, a four-wheeler will get you around pretty good, and a pair of snowshoes.
“If the snow is two to three feet deep, you cannot walk through it. It just tires you out very quick. And once you fall down, you are in a really bad way, because you can’t get up. You just can’t get ahold of the ground to push yourself up, so you’ve got to kind of roll around and find a tree you can hang onto.”
And yet, maple sugaring is what he enjoys. “I can’t stand computers. And I don’t want to play golf. So, I guess it’s just kind of an outing I enjoy, just seeing Mother Nature,” Doc said.
“It’s almost like a religion to him to be out in nature,” Laurie said. “The trees and the animals. I don’t think there’s a day he comes home that he doesn’t mention some beautiful thing he saw while he was in the woods. He loves it.”
About the second week of March, nighttime freezes and daytime thaws cause the sap to begin to run. Usually. “If it’s too cold, it won’t run,” Doc said. “If it’s too warm, it’ll stop running. You’re dealing with Mother Nature, who I’ve dealt with all my life. She can be a real bugger.”
Doc does not work alone. He gets an assist from forester Richard McIntosh. The Scrantons’ son Rick, a retired New York state trooper, drives from his upstate home to help. Their other son, Tim, is an optometrist in Washington, D.C.
“After the trees are tapped, the hard work is done. Then, when (the sap) starts running, that’s when the fun begins,” Laurie said. “It’s a good time for our son and my husband to be together.”
The finished product — some people call maple syrup the sweet nectar of the gods — is perfect for pouring on pancakes, stirring into milk, drizzling over ice cream, and many other uses. At Vermont’s annual Maplerama competition, Doc has taken home 11 blue ribbons for syrup that judges deemed “excellent.”
“People who don’t use maple syrup don’t know what they’re missing,” Doc said. “It has many uses and a flavor all its own. I won’t go to a restaurant without taking my maple syrup with me, because I won’t eat that other crap.”
Doc’s regular customers purchase his product locally at a lumberyard, a meat market, and a diner. He also sets up at a summer farmers market, where he sells his syrup for $20 a quart. That may sound like a lot, but only until you come to appreciate the fabulous flavor and the hard work that went into making it.