Duluth family bonds by tapping the sap

By Elizabeth Strawn Duluthians Sara and Randy Carlson started harvesting sugar bush 10 years ago when their two sons were toddlers. They would collect sap from the sugar maple trees in their backyard that lines the Hartley Nature Center … with their sons on their backs.

Now they have help from their sons Cooper, 13, and Wyatt, 10, in addition to time-saving advancements in technology.

“When a tub is full I will just send a text saying, ‘full,’ to Cooper and him and his friends will come deep into the woods where I am to get the buckets of sap,” Sara said.

Sara, 43, is a nurse at St. Mary’s Miller Dwan and Randy, 44, works at UMD in the Outdoor Programming department. Both are graduates of UMD, and met during a Christmas party at Grandma’s Upbar while in college.

Once they got to know each other, they found that they both have a love for traveling and enjoying the outdoors, which is a main reason why they decided to stay in Duluth.

“We look at all the people who come up to Duluth on the weekends and we feel lucky to live here,” Sara said.

They have continued that mentality while raising their family.

Sara and Randy love to travel and have been to a number of places including New Zealand and countries in South America. Now, with their sons, they continue to travel when possible and love to camp. They try to stay away from the distractions that a hotel can bring whenever possible.

"We kind of have a theory that when you camp together, you stay together as a family,” Sara said. "In hotels you have televisions and distractions, but when you are camping you have to work together, cook together and you have to talk."

With the help of Randy’s experience in outdoor education, the Carlsons have made making natural syrup a hobby every spring starting in March. It is not an easy task, and is time consuming but is seemingly well worth it.

After sap is collected from the 70 trees that they have tapped, the sap is then boiled in a stainless steel pan on top of a wood stove in their backyard.

“It takes on average 40 ounces of sap per one ounce of syrup. The tree carries a lot of water and you boil the sap to get rid of the water,” Randy said.

They boil about five times per season, with each day consisting of up to 19 straight hours of tending the wood stove.

The Carlsons couldn’t do it without the help from their family, friends and the little community that they have created.

“When we boil, it's kind of a little party,” Sara said. “The kids roast marshmallows and people in our community come and help throughout the day and they have fun.”

Boiling is Wyatt’s favorite part. He usually helps collect the sap, but he also likes when they cook the syrup in the frying pan so it crystallizes to make candy.

When all is said and done, they end up with between six and eight gallons of ‘Carlson’s Sugar Bush.’ They give the syrup out to their family and friends as a thank-you for their help, and of course keep some for themselves.

“When you try natural maple syrup you won’t ever go back to Jemima,” Randy said.

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