Watoga Trail Report

Adam Craten (L) and Trevor Swan (R) standing in front of the sugarhouse. Exterior artistry compliments of Annabel and Daniel Swan. K. Springer photos
Cheryl and Trevor Swan managing the evaporation of sap on its way to becoming maple syrup.

Ken Springer

Maple Syrup – The Conclusion

I would rather document the monotony of watching paint dry than attempt an article about any of our fine citizens here in Pocahontas County.

My reluctance to writing profiles has nothing to do with how interesting and engaging our citizenry may be. Or how much pleasure and enlightenment the reader may receive from such an exposé. Quite to the contrary, we have far more than our share of interesting characters in this county.

As a writer, I find it my duty to point out those things about a subject that makes him or her extraordinary. Such journalism is not an easy task in Pocahontas County, where unswerving modesty is such a ubiquitous trait.

Braggadocios are as rare as rocking horse manure around here; pardon the archaic idiom.

Oh, yes, some are overheard boasting about their wife’s apple pie, or about how smart their dog is. But good luck on finding a person willing to sing their own praises, even for the edification of our mountain community.

Many good articles do not get written because of this persistent problem. Be assured, our writers could keep you right on the edge of your seat, eyes glued to The Pocahontas Times if we could convince our humble people to speak up about themselves.
Such is the case with Trevor Swan.

I will share what I know and can sense about this fine young man.

Quick with a smile, Trevor is easy to engage in a meaningful conversation. He is intelligent and knowledgeable on a wide range of subjects and generous in sharing what he knows.

As seen through the eyes of an aging man, Trevor’s enthusiasm and energy seem boundless. A rarity today, he looks beyond the obstacles, weighs the options, and proceeds forward with confidence.

Trevor can remember when the notion of tapping maple trees for sap first came to him and his wife, Cheryl. They were caretakers of a wooded estate in Marion County and surrounded by mature maple trees.

It was their first venture into sugar making, and as Trevor said, “We were living in a log cabin built in the 1850s, heated by a woodstove. The scene was picture-perfect for making maple syrup, so we gave it a go.”

Trevor recounted how he and Cheryl tapped the maple trees near their cabin, collecting the sap in buckets, Igloo coolers and wine bottles. They boiled off the liquid over the woodstove during the colder periods. On warm days, they evaporated the sap outside over an open fire.

When finished, they had maple syrup made with their own hands and ingenuity. This experience ignited Trevor’s and Cheryl’s passion for setting up a sugaring venture on a larger scale.

That first experience with making maple syrup was in 2015. Trevor and Cheryl met while they were both attending WVU. Cheryl was born and raised in Pocahontas County, so two years ago and two children later, they moved back to Cheryl’s roots.

Trevor, Cheryl, five-year-old Annabel and three-year-old Daniel live near Hillsboro, hence the name of their handyman business, Level on the Levels. With a degree in civil engineering and a long list of construction skills, Trevor has a lot to offer Pocahontas County.  

He shared with me his interest in forest farming – and his sugaring business, Hillsboro Maple Works, readily fits within the concept. He explained that forest farming encompasses forest uses that go beyond just logging.

Forest farming can offer a sustainable source of income in a county that is 80 percent forested. Trevor emphasized that many potential products, such as ginseng, truffles and other botanicals, require “longer-term” thinking. Whereas sugar-making is immediately available, providing you have a stand of maple trees.

On the topic of forest farming Trevor added, “Pocahontas County is a good location for sustainable forest farming, with its pristine forest land. In addition to the state and national forests, another large portion of the land is held by and passed down through local families for generations.

“Many of these landowners are starting to practice some form of stewardship, resulting in an opportunity for adding aspects of forest farming that may not be otherwise considered.”

A case in point is the partnership that Trevor cultivated with Steve Olsen for tapping some 10 acres of maple trees on Steve’s property near Mill Point.

My first visit to this site was back in mid-December, where I had the pleasure of meeting Steve and getting an up-close look at the initial phase of tapping maple trees – stringing the hundreds of feet of plastic tubing.

It would be a few more weeks before above freezing temperatures would cause a pressure gradient within the tree, forcing the sap to flow. It is at this particular time that tapping the tree releases the sap.

I visited Trevor, Cheryl and the kids while drilling and tapping the trees and connecting the tubing to the plastic taps. This process, a family affair, will serve as an educational experience for Annabel and Daniel that few are privileged to have. Such outdoor experiences for children can help set a path for life.

The third and final visit in my sugar-making journey was to the Swan’s home to view the evaporation process. Clouds of steam rising from a garage-sized building, artfully decorated by the children, led me to the Swan’s sugarhouse.

We discussed the details of the final process of sugar making through a haze of steam. Raw sap enters this sugarhouse, and through the beautiful process of reduction by evaporation, it leaves as maple syrup.

Much like a balsamic vinegar reduction, the sap becomes something entirely different from what it started out as. Maple syrup is more than the sum of its parts; it is often described as sweet and smooth with hints of caramel and toffee. “Maple” is distinct in flavor from any other natural syrup and offers many minerals that both humans and trees need for good health.

Maple syrup is in all respects a gift from nature that is loved the world over. 

By the time you read this dispatch, the Swan family will have had an open house so that others can learn about sugar making first hand. I do hope you took the opportunity to meet this young and vibrant family.

People like the Swans represent the very best of our county, and they hold forth hope for a future of new and innovative forest commerce in Pocahontas County.

Trevor is indeed a humble man, but I hope that I introduced him to you in a manner that he does not find too uncomfortable.
Thanks to the efforts and foresight of people like Trevor’s family and the other producers in our area, we are fast becoming a significant center for maple products.

We are surrounded by forests teeming with botanicals and edible fungi. With creativity, hard work and wisdom, these and many more wild delicacies can be sustainably cultivated and harvested. And, we can do this in such a way that benefits the forest and our people.

Last week’s Watoga Trail Report on the history of maple syrup elicited some interesting email responses, one of which I’d like to share.

Ruth Taylor reports that for one Pocahontas County family, in December 1861, maple syruping became a casualty of the Civil War.

In Ruth’s words, “Jessie Brown Beard Powell tells the story of her Yeager ancestors who lived on what is now called the Top of Allegheny Battlefield. They had a large stand of maples and sold the sugar and syrup as far away as Monterey, Virginia. When the Confederate soldiers took over the battlefield, they cut the maples to build their winter cabins, thus destroying the family’s income.”

Well, when the sap stops flowing and the maple syrup is bottled for the year, it’s time to start checking on our favorite ramp patch. After feasting on ramps for a few weeks, we can begin looking forward to visiting that old apple tree where we always find those big white morels each spring.

We have our own ways of tracking the seasons here in Pocahontas County, and it’s not by a calendar tacked to the wall.

Until next week,
Ken Springer

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