words :: Feet Banks // photography :: Aga Iwanicka.
March 2021. There’s still plenty of snow clinging to, and falling on, the Coast Mountains and shred season is holding steady, pushing back against spring’s inevitable approach. Most years, or at least most non-COVID years, professional shredders like Pemberton skier Marie-Pier Préfontaine would have their eyes on local big lines they’ve been waiting to fill in all season, booking tickets to Alaska, and shredding big pillowy pow amidst the towering coniferous coastal rainforests.
Instead, with international travel banned, MP heads east—to the spaced-out maple forests of Sainte-Adèle, Quebec, hauling five-gallon buckets of sugary maple water without spilling a drop. March is maple syrup season, and MP has returned to the homeland to help her 86-year-old grandfather at the sugar shack.
“It wasn’t a hard decision,” MP says. “The sugar shack is the most relaxing place in the world for me. Yes, March has great skiing but it’s just skiing. I love to spend time with my grandpa each year, working with him in the forest and watching the birds. Especially with the pandemic happening and the uncertainty, I felt it was really important to put my family first.”
Grandpa Pierre Préfontaine has been working his maple forests since 2002. Throughout the year, he makes almost daily voyages out to the 16×16-foot slat wooden cabin with wood heat, no insulation, the requisite set of moose antlers nailed to the wall, and the boiler system needed to transform the sap from hundreds of maple trees into a traditional eastern Canadian delicacy—pure maple syrup. March is the best month to harvest because air temperatures begin to rise in the daytime but still drop below freezing at night to create pressure that pushes the sap out of the trees.
“We work every day,” MP explains. “Grandpa Pierre has about 850 notches in his trees, all connected with tubes, so we go out and collect maple water for several hours, then relax in the sun and keep the fire stoked to boil the maple water until it’s ready. We’ll chat with neighbours, maybe have a crêpe with some cheap white wine—it’s a peaceful environment. When you have a hectic life, the shack allows you to breathe deeply and feel good again.”
That sense of slowing down didn’t apply to the actual work process, however. This year, MP decided to use her touring skis to skin through the maple sap harvest routes rather than the more traditional snowshoe method. Coming from a skiing family (her mother, aunt, and uncle all coach ski racing, and MP is an Olympian and ex-National Ski Team member), strapping on the boards in the forests of her homeland was a natural move.
“It was easy and more efficient,” she says. “It was way more fun bringing the buckets of sap back to the shack but also for just getting around, inspecting or repairing the lines, or carrying equipment from place to place. And most important, it made my grandpa smile. He was laughing at me at first, but it worked out. Next year, I might try to get him to bring his skis as well.”
The process of making maple syrup is a huge part of Quebec culture, a tradition that brings families together to reconnect with one another and their history. Throughout the summer and autumn, maple trees store starch in their roots and trunks. As temperatures drop, that starch begins converting to sugar in the sap. Collected maple water needs to be boiled to evaporate off the water and leave just the sugary sap. It’s a process very conducive to quiet contemplation and connection to the forest, family and self.
“About 150 litres of maple water yields one gallon of syrup,” MP explains. “That can take about two and half hours to boil off, and it has to be a very precise temperature—104 degrees Celsius.”
While keeping the home fires burning exactly right, Grandpa Pierre and MP fill their downtime sitting on the deck of the shack he built by hand when she was a child. They tell stories, speaking softly while watching the birds.
“The most exciting bird is the grand pic, the pileated woodpecker,” MP says. “Grandpa Pierre says a lot about syrup making is just l’attente d’un grand pic [the wait for the pileated woodpecker]. It is the bird everyone wants to see, but it only appears sometimes. We saw him just once, on our last day. He showed up and presented to us his stunning red feathers on his head, his silky black body. There was no time for a photo or video, I just whispered ‘grand pic!’ and we sat silently to watch.
It was like he knew we would be gone the next day. We caught a glimpse of the hidden white feathers under his wings as he flew off. It was a magical moment, my grandfather’s favourite… that is worth missing some pow turns for.”