Secrets of the Forest

Apr 27, 2012

Fairbanks, AK - Birch is one of the most common trees in Alaska.  They're trees that easily blend into Alaska’s forest landscape. But underneath the smooth, tough layer of a birch tree’s bark, something is flowing.  It’s a natural  treasure with many curative properties.  And one very enthusiastic scientist loves to harvest the distinctive liquid each spring.

On a cool, sunny evening, a group of about 12 people crunch through old snow in the woods, searching for the perfect birch tree.  “So, I think this might be this year’s winner!” That's Kimberly Maher.  She is a PhD candidate in Natural Resources at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.  She studies Alaska’s birch and as soon as you meet her, you can tell she loves her subjects. “Well, we don’t have a lot of trees up here," she says, "so there’s really not a lot to choose from, but there’s really something magical about the birch tree. It’s actually been celebrated in folklore all around the circumpolar north.”

Maher teaches an annual workshop on how to tap the birch for their sap. She wants to find one that is just right for the harvest.  “This might be a good tree to tap.  It’s good because you can see it’s got a lot of light availability since it’s at the edge of the stand, I’m not really seeing any damage to it…”

She carries a ‘Z’-shaped widget with a drill bit on one end and what looks like a door-knob on the other.  She checks the tree for fungus and odd growths or old holes.  Then she gets to work.
[fade in creaking sound of the drill bit in the tree. 

She’s tapping the tree.  When the hole is finally drilled, Maher inserts a small, black plastic tap, or spile …

The spile is connected to a rubber tube that spills into a plastic bucket on the ground.  Now all we have to do is wait for the sap to start running. Maher says all it takes is a few good days of warm weather above 50 degrees.  But birch trees, she says are very responsive to changes in the weather.  “I’m pretty sure it was spring 2002, where the sap season started going and it was the first week of May and then it just started snowing and we got like three days of snow," she recalls, "and so the trees had been pumping out some sap.  As soon as it got colder they shut down production for about three days.”

During the winter, trees store the sap in their roots.  It’s chock-full of minerals and nutrients the tree needs to produce its leaves come spring-time.  “A tree will produce anywhere from like half a gallon a day to some of my best producers produce like up to five gallons a day.”

For rookie tapper, Amy Tippery, it’s all about the discovery. “The beauty of birch trees just astounds me at all seasons," says Tippery, "but in the spring time when the sun shines on them, you know there’s gotta be some treasures in there.  And I really have this big curiosity the birch trees on my property start – well, I don’t know if they’ll gush, but I would really like to see what comes out.  Birch tapping is just so mysterious right now.”

It’s unclear how many people in Alaska tap birch trees for their sap, but Kimberly Maher says it’s nothing new.

“The sap has been harvest for thousands of years in a bunch of different countries and there is all different types of ailments that it’s been used to treat,” she says.

…Illnesses like tonsillitis and ailments like arthritis and hypertension.  

Birch sap isn’t the stick, gooey stuff you see oozing from other trees.  It has the consistency of water, it’s clear, and if you’re Kimberly Maher, it sparkles ever so slightly.  As for the taste…  “It’s kinda like licking a birch tree, um no I don’t know how to describe it," laughs Maher.

When Maher boils down the sap to make syrup, she’s says it’s not the kind she pours over pancakes.

“My favorite way to do it is over vanilla ice cream with some lingonberries, where you’ve got the tartness of the lingonberries and the creaminess of the ice cream and the pah-pow of the birch syrup,”  she laughs.

Birch sap flows from 10 days up to two weeks.  Later in the season tiny organisms will become active and the sap may turn a light pinkish, that’s when Maher says the harvest is over.  “Oh, you don’t know me during the sap season," she smiles.  "During the sap season, I walk around with a jug and make everyone drink it, I am a total sap pusher!”

That’s why she’s always armed with a stack of Dixie cups this time of year, ready to offer a refreshing sip of her favorite sap to anyone who passes by.

*This story, produced by KUAC's Emily Schwing was deemed 2012's Best Radio Feature by the Alaska Broadcaster's Association.