Liquid gold tapped from maple trees in Kleekhoot

Bigleaf maple trees are normally seen as a hindrance to forestry on Vancouver Island, but the Hupacasath First Nation are taking steps to sustainably use the species for what could become the largest maple syrup operation on Vancouver Island.

This year the Alberni Valley First Nation installed taps in 100 bigleaf maple trees on its Kleekhoot reserve land near Sproat Lake, where the Sproat and Stamp rivers meet. Since the taps were drilled on Jan. 1 Jason Lion, the Hupacasath’s agricultural project manager, has closely monitored the Kleekhoot Gold operation. Changing the tap location every three or four weeks to ensure the trees can heal, Lion is assessing which trees are producing the most sap. The ideal time for getting sap from trees is during a warm thaw after freezing, which can occur throughout the winter months.

“The riparian areas near the river where there’s lots of ground water are good producing,” Lion said. “That’s been a limitation for a lot of people in this industry, they don’t have access to that sort of land, the wide swath of riverside land. That’s why it’s such a great business venture for the band to be getting into, they do have this abundant land with the right type that the bigleaf maple production needs.”

Sap buckets are collected every day to ensure a fresh product. Western sap is composed of two per cent sugar, requiring an involved evaporation process to condense the liquid into syrup. Lion said 60 litres of bigleaf maple sap is needed to produce a litre of syrup, more boiling than what operations in Ontario and Quebec face.

This is the first step towards what is planned to be a 1,000 tap operation in future years, a large-scale initiative that would make the Hupacasath by far the largest producer of maple syrup on Vancouver Island. With funding from the Nuu Chah Nulth Economic Development Corporation, the Hupacasath have ordered a gas-powered industrial evaporator from Quebec to replace the wood-fired equipment currently being used, an investment Lion expects will quadruple efficiency. To house the production a sugar shack has been erected on the other side of the Somass River by the Hupacasath’s administrative building, composed of logs from the First Nation’s forestry land.

Chief Councillor and Natural Resource Manager Steve Tatoosh sees the project as a means to use the First Nation’s land in a sustainable manner. In forestry bigleaf maple are often considered to be a species that interferes with more marketable timber, but the Kleekhoot Gold project is finding value in the thousands of maple trees the Hupacasath has access to near Sproat Lake.

“A lot of people will treat a maple tree as a weed, everybody wants to get rid of them,” said Tatoosh. “If it’s feasible, we’d like to work with forest companies in the future so that they don’t cut the maples down.”

To gain a better understanding of the market on Vancouver Island, Lion ventured to Duncan for the the Bigleaf Maple Festival held Feb. 6-7. With 88 reported farms in B.C. using an average of 40 taps each, the practice exists as a hobby operation with limited venues to market the sweet product. But the Hupacasath’s Kleekhoot Gold could take bigleaf maple tapping a step further by offering a high-end product to stores and restaurants. Samples from the first month of tapping reveal a fuller sweetness than the more common maple syrup distributed from farms in Ontario and Quebec.

“I’m 38 years old and I’ve never had wild maple syrup in my life from here,” Tatoosh said. “The first time I tried it, it was amazing, I couldn’t believe how good it was.”

By Eric Plummer