Ziinzibaakwad – Maple Syrup

Like a reliable friend, March has once again arrived to help shake off the colds of winter. There are a lot of exciting things happening in March, as spring gets closer and closer every day. The days become longer and warmer, and this can only mean one thing: the arrival of maple syrup season!

Ziinzibaakwad (maple syrup) is produced from the sap of the sugar maple tree. In Ojibwe, we call the maple tree ninaatig. The ziinzibaakwadwaatig (sugar maple tree) is identifiable by the leaf. The sugar maple leaf has u-shaped lobes, versus the red maple’s V-shaped or pointy lobes. One way to remember this is to think “suuuugar”, with a u for u-shaped lobes. 

We love maple syrup for its delicious addition to foods like pancakes and waffles, but the ziinzibaakwadwaaboo (sap) can also be used for good cleansing of the body. Today, the Sweet-Water Ceremony is being revitalized within the two neighboring communities, Shawanaga and Wasauksing First Nations. This ceremony gives thanks to the trees for sharing  their sap with us so that we can sustain our life and produce maple syrup.

Credit: D. Arnold

Anishinaabek Relationships with the Ninaatig

There are many stories and teachings about maple sap and syrup. Anishinaabek stories are place based which means they reflect the people, geology and ecology of the place they come from. While coastal communities and First Nations throughout the Georgian Bay Biosphere are connected by the water, the stories are unique to each community and First Nation. 

Some Anishinaabek stories about the ziinzibaakwadwaatig talk about a boy who was out hunting one day and shot his arrow at a tree. When he went to retrieve the arrow, he noticed a clear, water-like liquid dripping from the wound in the bark. He tasted the sap and discovered its sweetness and shared this learning with his community. 

Other Anishinaabek stories talk about how the Anishinaabek followed the actions of the baapaase (woodpecker) in the spring. The transition from biboon (winter) to ziigwaan (spring) is a difficult time for many animals because of the limited food available. The Anishinaabek had tried to tap the tree in hopes of finding food – just like the baapaase. When the Anishinaabek tapped into the ziinzibaakwadwaatig, they soon found out that sweet water flowed from the tree. With much gratitude and appreciation, the Anishinaabek continued to tap the ninaatigak (maple trees) to harvest the sweet water. The Anishinaabek learned to boil it down into maple syrup and even continue the boil further to create pure maple sugar. 

Examples of the buckets to collect the sap.

Credit: D. Arnold
Credit: K. Judge

The Production

Maple syrup can only be produced in the late winter, right before spring. The sap within the sugar maple tree starts to thin out and can be harvested from the tree. There are modern ways to do so, like Wasauksing Maple Products’ way of using tubes that connect each tree to the maple syrup sugar shack.

Traditional maple syrup making is a long process that is physically demanding – but also highly rewarding. Shawanaga First Nation continues to harvest maple sap in a more traditional way. The sugar bush harvesters drill small taps, each with a spout into the trees, which is not harmful, and set up makak (buckets) underneath the taps to collect the sap that drips out of the spout. The best temperatures for sap to run well are cold evenings and warm days. Throughout the day, the harvesters will walk around the sugar bush to collect the full buckets, replacing them with empty buckets, and bring the sap back to the shkode (fire). There they will pour the sap into larger collection barrels. The barrels are dumped into a stove over a fire and boiled. This is how the excess water is removed and the sap turns into a thicker and sweeter syrup. It takes about 40 gallons (150 liters) of sap to make 1 gallon (3.7 liters) of syrup. Fun fact, Canada produces approximately 70% of the entire world’s maple syrup supply.

With the wonderful warm days and chilly evenings we’ve had recently, it is a marvellous season for maple syrup!

Collected sap being poured into a larger bucket before being boiled down. Credit: K. Judge