As the Pontiac emerges from the frosty grip of winter, the cold, dry air is replaced by a sweet, warm scent. The warming weather in mid-March is when the sap in trees flows freely, and the harvesters come out from the quiet winter months ready to harvest nature’s liquid gold.
It’s syrup season in the Pontiac and farmers have been hard at work. Thousands of trees across hundreds of acres of land have been tapped. In modern times, the classic image of a metal pail attached to the trees is a rare sight; instead, endless tubes snake through the sugar bush trees, carrying sugary sap to be boiled down into syrup.
When the sap is collected into a basin, some sugar shacks put the sap through reverse osmosis, which separates the sugar and the water. This reduces the amount of water in the sap and preps it for efficient boiling.
The reduced sap is then collected into a large evaporator, which boils the concoction, removing the rest of the water, filling the air with sweet-smelling steam and leaving the sugary goodness to be refined into the many maple products that sugar shacks offer.
While many people harvest their own syrup in the Pontiac, there is a small number of dedicated establishments that make maple farming their living, their mission and their passion. If the thought of making your own maple syrup and treats has ever crossed your mind, the time to do it is now, and these three local businesses are ready to help you do it.
Sucrerie Alary, Luskville
Located along Hwy. 148, Sucrerie Alary is cozily nestled near the base of the Eardley Escarpment. The Luskville sugar shack is situated on the Alary family’s 600-acre farm, and is run by Hélène and Pierre Alary, who built everything in their sugar bush from the ground up.
The Alarys are veterans in the sugar industry, having run Sucrerie Alary since 1978. The tradition of maple sugaring goes back even further for Pierre as both his father and grandfather ran sugar shacks in their lifetimes. They hope theirs will be inherited by their grandson when they can no longer work.
“Forty-some years ago, we started with 150 or so taps and a small evaporator, it was an antique. It was just for family and friends,” Alary explained. “We’ve gradually gone up to 400, 750 and then 1,000 … We had more customers so now we’re up to 2,500. It’s the maximum, we can’t go any higher.”
As two retired teachers, Hélène and her husband may be out of the classroom but they certainly have not stopped educating those who visit their sugar shack. The wall of the shack and the trails are decorated with diagrams and information plaques, detailing the process of production and what trees are growing in the area, among other things.
“At a normal time, people are allowed to walk into the sugar bush. We are two ex teachers and we like to educate people … even Canadian people, Quebecers, they really don’t know how maple syrup is produced. So people are always interested in walking around and they have a lot of questions,” Hélène said.
This year, Sucrerie Alary is offering their usual array of syrup, maple butter, sugar cones and lollipops, as well as debuting their do-it-at-home maple toffee servings. To avoid large gatherings of people, they built a small wooden shack for people to pick up goods. And even though there may be tight restrictions in place, Hélène encourages Pontiacers to pay their long-standing sugar shack a visit.
“I just wanna tell people that we’re there and we’re always happy to help out if they need anything or if they just want to walk into the bush, they’re always welcome,” she said. “There is always a place for new customers, definitely.”
La Vallée des Rosiers,
At the northern edge of the Municipality of Otter Lake, one family has turned a picturesque property into a comfortable and educational tourist attraction. Along with their famous dog sledding, vineyard, modern accommodations and more, Escapade Huskimo is surrounded by hundreds of tapped trees for their sugar shack, La Vallé des Rosiers.
In 2001, owners Sylvain Drapeau and Caroline Desrosiers — after whom the sugar bush is named — moved to the Pontiac to enjoy dog sledding in the winters. It was not until 2010 that they established their sugar bush as an additional activity for their tourism retreat. Drapeau was taught by a local harvester, and Desrosiers eventually attended classes to learn even more. Their goal is to pass on that knowledge to others as they come out of the sledding season.
“[I’m] busy with dog sledding in the winter, we have some employees come to tap all the trees and when we get to the middle of March I’m starting to clean all the tubs and equipment to be ready, so we’re just waiting for the sap to start and then we can start boiling,” Drapeau said.
According to Drapeau, the aspect that sets La Vallée de Rosiers apart from other sugar shacks is the hands-on learning experience guests can receive by staying at the lodge.
“We offer for people to come to our location here and do maple syrup with us. It’s more about the learning experience … If they come on a package with the accommodations, they can learn how to do toffee and other products at the same time the next morning,” he said. “Since people don’t have the equipment at home, we show them how to do it. They participate in the activities and they go [home] with some of the production that they do too.”
Currently, Escapade Huskimo is open for accommodation and maple sugaring bookings. Due to the pandemic and the amount of work that goes into harvesting, Drapeau said they can only accommodate one group at a time. Nevertheless, he hopes to attract guests both in and out of the Pontiac to show off what the region has to offer and put it on the map.
“We are not pointed at being a tourism destination at first, there are other places in the Outaouais, there are more sugar shacks out there that people are used to. But we have the potential here because we have a lot of maple that we need to work together and have more business in tourism to attract more people to come to our area.”
La Paysannerie, Bristol
Hidden in the fields off Hwy. 148 in Bristol is the biggest sugar bush in the Pontiac, La Paysannerie, with 4,500 taps. Behind the behemoth of a farm are Isabelle Lajoie and Marc Bergeron, who have been maple sugaring for nearly a decade.
They began with just 100 taps, a love of nature and a passion for sugaring. In that time, their whole business grew to include other ventures, but that didn’t stir up the syrup; it remains one of the farm’s main focuses.
“We started the sugar bush in 2012, but in 2014 we purchased more land and that’s when the animals came in and [we] started doing different productions in meat. So we have pork, wild boar, beef chicken and some eggs as well,” Lajoie explained. “We actually purchased the property for [the sugar trees]. We had the objective to create a sugar bush so we built this sugar bush with our own hands with the wood that was on the property.
“It was really a slow grow but we’re quite happy now with the progress and where we’re at now.”
Since adding livestock to their farm, La Paysannerie has been able to broaden their horizons and offer a variety of unique goods. In addition to serving a multitude of sugar-centric products, they have been experimenting with combining maple with meat.
“Because we are a meat producer, we’re able to mix our products … for example our maple sausage which is made with our pork and our syrup. So I think it distinguishes ourselves, distinguishes the taste and that’s what makes us different.”
Recently, the farm teamed up with other local businesses to put together a breakfast box featuring a selection of their sugar and meat products, including the maple sausages.
Lajoie also added that, while it would save time, they do not use osmosis in their syrup production. Though it adds four or five hours, they say it is worth it for sweeter syrup.
With so many opportunities and so few established sugar bushes, Lajoie hopes that the Pontiac’s sugary potential is realized and more shacks pop up.
“In the Pontiac, there is a very good potential for maple syrup. Honestly, it’s sad that there’s not more,” Lajoie said. “But at the same time we are glad to open up the trails and maybe people will follow us and if we can help people start up and enjoy what nature gives us, then that would be a benefit.”
FREE ACCESS FOR EQUITY SUBSCRIBERS
This article is available free to all subscribers to The Equity. If you are a subscriber, please enter your email address and password below.
SET UP YOUR ONLINE ACCOUNT
If you are a subscriber but have not yet set up your online account, please contact Liz Draper at email@example.com to do so.
HOW TO BECOME A SUBSCRIBER