This is an article I wrote in 2018, before my concussion and my second baby paused my writing for awhile. Harry is two now and I am starting to emerge again as a writer. It is March and despite the despair and unknown of March 2020, it is still a favourite month in our home. The sun gives us some more backyard time, expanding our home by acres. We spend as much time outside as we can when it is warm enough. March reminds us of that. This weekend, we took the kids out for two straight days: sliding, playing, bonfire, jiffy pop, hot cocoa, and, my favourite, a book by the campfire. Next week, the maple syrup boil starts. That reminded me of my favourite writing piece, shared on this site in March 2018. I share it here as a reminder of what This Place has meant to me and my wish for my children in This Place.
Here is a little throwback article to 2018:
“You need to add butter,” he says. “When the sap starts to foam. It calms it down. Just a little.”
He’s been making maple syrup since we moved into our Kingston, New Brunswick home five years ago. Our first winter here, he started small, tapping several trees around our property, learning through experience and tips he found online: which trees to tap, how to boil it down, how best to preserve the maple syrup so we can have it all year round and pass some on to family.
This year he’s fashioned an old cast iron stove into an evaporator for sap, cutting out the top for the stainless steel pan, and adding a fan to keep the fire hot.
“It’s hard boiling today because it is windy and cold,” he explains.
This is exactly why I’ve kept my toddler, and myself if I am being honest, inside for most of the day. She’s been watching him all morning from our kitchen door, narrating everything he does.
“Him making hot--,” she looks to me for the word.
“He’s making a hot fire to boil the sap,” I tell her.
“Him making fire to make syrup for my pancakes!” she exclaims, and then dances around the kitchen island.
I don’t think she has quite grasped that boiling forty litres of sap to yield one litre of maple syrup takes patience and time. It won’t be until late tonight that we will get the first bottle, and she’ll be in bed before she’s getting pancakes, but maybe tomorrow.
“The syrup’s ready!” she yells. “Daddy is making the syrup for my pancakes, and it’s ready!”
There is more toddler dancing.
This is her exclamation every time he gets up, adds a log, stokes the fire, adds more sap to the pan, and does other tasks that is involved in the full day sap boil.
My role is still one of observer and keeper of toddler--because of the flames and boiling sap. I help out when things need done away from the fire, but mostly I watch, learn, and think about how the man I met eight years ago has changed significantly. Then, he was totally into snowboarding, where now he is a red-bearded man who raises chickens, pigs, and spends much of his weekends in March perfecting the art of boiling sap. Over the few years we’ve lived in Kingston, he has learned how to boil the sap so that it is not too thick, not too thin, but delicious and beautiful, and made from our backyard and in our backyard.
Later that night he brings what is left of the forty litres of sap into the house to finish on our stove. The wind and cold has made it a hard day of boiling, and the last hour can be done indoors. We marvel at the amber liquid. He snaps to it quickly when it starts to foam maniacally, settling it down with a little slick of butter, and eventually pouring the litre of syrup into two small mason jars.
“Will you boil again tomorrow? Or do you need to wait until you have more sap?” I ask.
“If it is a good week, I will get more to boil down on the weekend,” he explains.
This year he has about fifteen of our sugar maples tapped, and each night he goes around from tree to tree, checking the sap, filling a large bucket with the gains. I remember the year I was pregnant, it had snowed so heavily that he used snowshoes to get from tree to tree. By May, the snow had melted and the buckets were high up in the trees. He used a ladder to get them down. But this year, with such little snow, I can take Adeline around to the buckets, low enough for her to touch, and I show her the sap, dripping from the tree and into the bucket over the spile. She is only two, and maybe she won’t understand that this tree and her pancakes have so much in common, but someday she will.
“How long will you collect the sap?” I ask, curious and always a little in awe at this old custom played out in my backyard.
“As long at the days are warm and the nights are cold, and until the trees start to bud. That’s generally the season,” he explains. He’s short. He’s told me all this before. But, I ask a lot of questions.
I think about the corn syrup masked as maple in the grocery stores. Until recently, I really never thought much about the difference. I should have, though, as I’m from New Brunswick and it is our culture.
My grandmother, Velma Finnigan, ninety one and from Wirral, NB, loves hearing about these backyard homestead adventures. She grew up on a farm and she too had chickens and pigs. Her father tapped his trees for syrup. Her brother still lives on the land.
I call her up as the sap boils on our stove.
“Do you remember your father making maple syrup when you grew up?” I ask.
“Yes, I do. He used to tap the trees up on Birch Hill, and bring it all in for my mother to boil over the cast iron stove. It was hot in the house once the weather warmed, and I remember my mother saying it would take all day for just a little syrup,” my grandmother explains.
“Did he do enough to sell, or was it just for the family?” I ask, curious about her life on the farm.
“He only did it for us. It was hard work, and my mother had so many other things to do that using the stove for an entire day to make sure it turned out took a lot of work. She didn’t have running water, or electricity. She cooked all of our meals on that one stove, it took her all day to make a stew. So, they didn’t do the syrup much, just enough for our pancakes,” she says.
I can’t help but think of my grandmother, waiting all day for maple syrup for her pancakes like my daughter waited today. There may be 89 years separating them, but the custom of the maple syrup boil is exactly the same.
I remember going to Elmhurst Outdoors in Kingston, NB in the 1990s. I liked learning about it that day. The trees and the sap and all that boiling wowed me then as it does now. But today, I like the lesson of patience in the production of the syrup, something I missed on that one day trip to the wilderness. Thanks to my partner, I get to see the deliberate toil of progress: wait for the tree to produce the sap, hope for a good season, and then collect it all for the boil. It is slow. It is precise. It is rewarding. And I am thankful my partner has taken on this skill so that my daughter can learn from it.
Before my daughter goes to bed, I take her out for a last look at the boiling, just as her dad is getting ready to bring it in.
“It’s preddy,” she says. Pretty is still a tricky word at two.
“What’s that?” I ask.
She is on her swing in the backyard. It is snowing. The trees are blowing hard at the top, but down here on the ground it is calm, and the quiet is beautiful.
“This place!” she smiles.
She opens her arms up wide, closes her eyes, and breathes deep.
"This Place" is a blog I started when I wrote about local families for a local paper. The paper folded, as they do, and this is all that remains of those stories. I don't want to delete them, and I feel I have enough offshoots on this site to write about. But, if you want to read the stories I developed in that brief moment in time, here it is.
As I drove through Hampton on the first warm day of spring, I noticed the Town Square overflowing with families. I was astonished to see that there are so many people, who, like me, have chosen this beautiful place to call home and raise a family. It was then that I wanted to celebrate This Place and profile the families who’ve made the Hampton area home.
Summer is a time to lounge, but most of us with kids are looking for activities that don’t break the bank, or the gas tank. There are many beautiful spots to explore in the Hampton area.
Laura and Chris Wilson, newly married, moved to Kingston, NB in 2011. “It was a compromise,” Laura laughs, explaining that her husband prefers the wilderness. The couple enjoys the acreage and their quiet life on the peninsula.
The Wilsons always camped together, first taking their two dogs in a tent. But when their son Harrison was two, the couple started a tradition that is now an annual event for their boys. Laura and Chris spend much of their summer camping with sons, Harrison, 4, Duncan, 2, and their two dogs, Colbie and Katie.
The Wilson family spends many summer weekends at their favourite New Brunswick parks to unplug from the hustle and bustle of life. Their top three places to camp give them a place to hike and discover nature, all while building memories for their two small boys.
Camping with two boys under four and two dogs takes preparation, patience, and a positive outlook. Laura claims you need to “know your kid’s limits”. She advises not to push them too far, and not to lose confidence when the tantrums erupt, even on a 5K hike or at bedtime. Laura brings snacks, activities, and drinks to keep the boys from meltdown, yet her best advice is to understand in advance that it won’t ever be the ideal vacation. She remembers a week-long camping trip when both she and Chris got the flu, but she recalls it with a big laugh and says it didn’t stop them from camping again.
She approaches each trip with the knowledge that it won’t be perfect, instead it is the time away from the world with family that matters most. She emphasises the experiences she and Chris are giving the boys, often spending much longer on the trails than expected so they can inspect the insects, the leaves, and the moss, learning about the nature of our province. It’s these moments that make the camping trips worth all the prep, overshadowing the tantrums.
Still, one needs to prepare, and if you are thinking of camping, especially with children, Laura is the expert in family camping preparation. Here are Laura’s Top Ten Tips to Camping:
Karen Robinson stepped onto the campus of St. Thomas University in September of 2005 for her first year of university and her first year living in Canada. Her mom accompanied from their home in Bermuda, and once she’d spent her first week in Fredericton, she turned to her mom and said: “Don’t worry, Mom, I’m not staying. I’m never living in Canada.” Thirteen years later, Karen lives in Kingston, NB with her baby daughter and partner Stew.
Karen grew up in Bermuda, she’s lived in England, but she now calls the Kingston Peninsula home. She started dating Stewart Tongue in her third year of university in Fredericton, and after graduating the two moved to Rothesay, NB.
“I’ve got family all over the place,” she says. “But I think the people in Canada are just the nicest, easiest to get along with--my kind of people.”
“It was the natural thing to stay,” she says about choosing Canada over Bermuda. “I didn't like the winters, but I liked the people.”
It didn’t take the couple long to build roots in the area, and after six months of apartment living they started the search for a home. They widened their search from the KV area, where Stew is from, to Kingston, and discovered a place with land and a pond.
“When we moved to Kingston, we started doing things I’ve never done before. We had blackberry bushes, so we started making blackberry jam,” she says.
She used the apple trees in their backyard to make apple pies, and suddenly Karen had embraced the life of a backyard homesteader.
“My mom couldn’t believe it once when she came to see me and I was making jam. In Bermuda we’re not a city, but we are more urban. Not many people grow their own vegetables [in Bermuda],” she says.
Thinking about what makes her life on the East Coast different than her life in Bermuda she says: “You just love the people here in Hampton: friendly and accepting. When I moved here I was a very different person; you wouldn’t catch me eating moose and deer. I couldn’t imagine that. And now that is what we do regularly. We raise chickens and eat their eggs. Completely different, but I love the way I live. I’d never move anywhere else.”
Over the last few years, the couple started looking for a place with more land and waterfront. They wanted to build their dream home, and last year they found it in Clifton Royal, along the Kennebecasis River.
“We like our land,” she says, when asked what drew them to the new place. “We have 31 acres, an old farmhouse with a garage, apple trees, two ponds, and [the land] goes down to the water. We are going to build our dream home. We’ve drawn up plans of what we both want, and we’d like to also build an apartment above our garage for our parents, or children when they grow up.”
Karen said she and Stew like the freedom of their lifestyle here. They collect their own maple syrup, grow their own vegetables. And thinking of what she wants for her daughter, and her future children she says: “I want them to learn the things I never learned living in [Bermuda].”
She says her children will have the freedom to play on their land with the chickens.
“And to be environmentally conscious,” she adds. “I want them to grow up having fun on the land and outside. I grew up inside with TV, but there wasn’t a whole lot to do, so I want my kids to be able to go outdoors and know a lot. And if they move to the city, they know how to grow their vegetables, and when you go to the store [to know] that animal may not have had the best life so to support local.”
Ultimately, what she wants her children to remember is that they had a good life outdoors.
“I want them to look back at their childhood and know that they’ve had a lot of fun,” she smiles.
Even before they had their daughter, Karen and Stew embraced the nature around them by creating adventures for their friends. She says they did a lot of different things that “you can’t do in other places, [like] build a hot tub in the back of a pickup truck...make an 80 foot long slip and slide….an obstacle course….Things that you can look back on. I think the area allows for that. And the people are more accepting about it,” she laughs.
Other advantages she’s grown to appreciate about the her small town lifestyle since having her daughter are the schools in Hampton. She also mentions the HALL Celebrate Baby series. “Hampton offers things that I don’t think people know, like the HALL group, for free,” she says.
“The only thing I wish for is a big grocery store,” she laughs. “[Hampton] has everything else you need. We even have a bus that I used to catch to work [in Saint John].”
Overall, when asked about the differences between her life in Bermuda and her life in Canada, she said it was the people that drew her to Canada’s small town East Coast living. “The people in Canada [are]...my kind of people,” Karen laughs. Karen, Stew, and their daughter will begin building their dream home soon.