Photo by Kelly Sullivan/ Peninsula Clarion Marcus Mueller and his daughter Amelia go through their evening routine of gathering the sap drained from ten Kenai birch trees on their property Tuesday, April 19, 2016, in Kenai, Alaska.

Photo by Kelly Sullivan/ Peninsula Clarion Marcus Mueller and his daughter Amelia go through their evening routine of gathering the sap drained from ten Kenai birch trees on their property Tuesday, April 19, 2016, in Kenai, Alaska.

Birch tapping for the beginners

With three weeks gone in the season, Kenai birch sap is still streaming on the central Kenai Peninsula, trickling in slow, steady drips that can add up to a half gallon a day.

Tappers are taking to the trees standing in backyards or public lands to collect the sweet liquid to drink fresh, freeze for later or boil down into a saccharine version of itself.

“I found out you can’t really turn off the tap,” said Kenai resident Marcus Mueller, who is trying out tapping for the first time this year. “Once it is on, the faucet stays on.”

Last week he tried plugging up holes made with a drill bit in 10 trees surrounding his home, but the birch water kept flowing. He later found out many maple- or birch-tapping outfits recommend letting the tiny wounds heal naturally.

Every evening after work he and his daughter Amelia Mueller, a sixth-grader at Kenai Middle School, gather what has fallen into the white pails resting on nails stuck in rough bark.

“It tasted really sweet and sugary,” Amelia said, recalling the first time she tasted birch syrup. “I really like it after it is boiled down a little.”

Thanks to her dad’s experimentations, her family has tried it on salmon, vegetables, as a refreshing morning elixir or dessert drink. She said she hopes to pair it with pancakes soon. Marcus added he would compare the syrup to molasses, but that it really had a unique taste, which made consuming all the more appealing.

It is the duo’s first year trying out the new hobby, so they preceded the legwork with a bit of groundwork. Marcus did research and found what they would need —buckets and nails to hang them on, plastic tubing to make the spiles that would protrude from the woody flesh of the tree, bigger buckets for gathering and a steel pan for boiling. He also bought 24 cinder blocks to fashion an outdoor cooking pit.

Mueller, who is also manager of the land management office for the Kenai Peninsula Borough, said the activity is very accessible for area residents, especially those looking for more ways to practice subsistence living. He said he sees birch sap as an under-utilized raw material, and predicts with as many Kenai birch tree stands as there are in the area, anyone dedicated could collect as much as 400 gallons each season.

A single variety, called the Kenai birch, grows on the Kenai Peninsula. It is nearly identical to the paper birch found in interior Alaska, is notable for its smaller leaf size and fewer resin dots on twigs, and is unique to the area, according to the Alaska Region of the United States Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service.

Mueller noted the world’s largest birch tapping operation Kahiltna Birchworks, is located in Alaska, operating out of Talkeetna.

In 2013, the company collected 180,000 gallons of sap, which produced 1,600 gallons of syrup, said Dulce Ben-East, who co-operates the company with husband Michael East, in a previous Clarion interview. The couple is in their 27th year of operations, and has shipped their products as far as Italy, Finland and Norway.

There are challenges to tapping birch trees. The process is labor-intensive, requiring 100 gallons of birch sap to make one gallon of syrup, compared to the 50 gallons of sap required for a gallon of maple syrup.

The gathering season is also quite short.

Sap usually starts flowing when temperatures dip below freezing at night and shoot into the 40s and 50s during the day. The season lasts two weeks.

Nikiski resident Barbara Njaa, who is in her second year of birch tree tapping, said she takes the outflow as a good sign of spring. Once the budding birch begin to leaf out, the sap will dry up.

Njaa said she had known about birch tapping for a while but was turned off by the work it would take to make the syrup. Then she found out she could drink it fresh. She said it is a great health drink.

“It’s like having a little cow with roots out there,” Njaa said.

She, too, prefers to practice foraging and gathering techniques. She especially enjoys making wild tea drinks, and now her morning routine includes drinking fresh Kenai birch sap. Njaa will freeze any extras for later use.

While she was watching the weather, and waiting to hang pails to monitor premature drips, she was told about a trick to tell if the trees are ready to let loose. People preparing to tap can just snap off a twig and see how much comes out, she said.

She collects the birch water twice each day from the two trees she and her husband are tapping, and strains any detritus out before consumption.

Njaa inspired her neighbor, Debbi Palm, to give tapping a try this year.

“She and I have been playing in the woods for a pretty long time,” Palm said.

The pair has hunted mushrooms, nettles, weeds, berries and flowers together for cooking and as a way to maintain a connection with land.

Palm only takes from one tree every day, but right now she is getting as many as 2 gallons from her backyard birch.

“That is all we need so that is all we are doing,” Palm said. “I don’t want to just poke a tree to poke a tree.”

She drinks the water without changing its consistency and likes it for the antioxidants, and sweet taste, which she compared to the light, honey-like tang of the tip of a fireweed plant.

“This time of year you want to be outside and it gives you an excuse,” Palm said. “It’s fun to just try something you haven’t done before.”

For those who don’t have access to the resource on their own property, stands on Alaska Division of Forestry or Kenai National Wildlife Refuge lands may be tapped.

The refuge’s Chief of Visitors Services Matt Connor said not to leave plugs or spiles in trees and to choose trees slightly off of main trails so the activity is minimally invasive to other visitors, in previous Clarion interview.

Reach Kelly Sullivan at kelly.sullivan@peninsulaclarion.com

Photo by Kelly Sullivan/ Peninsula Clarion Amelia Mueller logs the amount of sap collected in one of the ten trees she and her father Marcus Mueller tapped this year Tuesday, April 19, 2016, in Kenai, Alaska.

Photo by Kelly Sullivan/ Peninsula Clarion Amelia Mueller logs the amount of sap collected in one of the ten trees she and her father Marcus Mueller tapped this year Tuesday, April 19, 2016, in Kenai, Alaska.

Photo by Kelly Sullivan/ Peninsula Clarion Marcus Mueller used cheap plastic tubing to fashion the spiles he used in the Kenai birch he tapped on his property this season Tuesday, April 19, 2016, in Kenai, Alaska.

Photo by Kelly Sullivan/ Peninsula Clarion Marcus Mueller used cheap plastic tubing to fashion the spiles he used in the Kenai birch he tapped on his property this season Tuesday, April 19, 2016, in Kenai, Alaska.

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