WHITETOP, Va. - On a brisk, blue-sky morning recently on mile-high White Top Mountain, several good old boys in boots and flannel headed into the woods with cordless power drills and hammers. Minutes later, with a whir and a bang, another maple syrup season had begun.
Cold nights are beginning to yield to warmer days here in the Appalachians, and that's the kind of weather maple sap needs to start flowing.
So last week, some of the older residents of the rural community of Whitetop hiked into the Jefferson National Forest, where they drilled holes in maple trees and knocked in plastic taps to catch the sugary juice they are now busily turning into maple syrup.
Though ice still hung on rock outcroppings and pockets of snow covered the wooded slopes, the maples would not wait. And when the maples are ready, so are the old-timers of Whitetop, who work to keep the syrup-making tradition alive no matter what the weather brings.
"Hotter'n a firecracker!" shouted Sonny Buchanan, 74, apropos of nothing, as he hammered a tap into a newly drilled hole in a slender maple. Buchanan shouted the expression nearly every time he wielded his hammer, to the amusement of his colleagues, Buryl Greer, 65, and Jaye Baldwin, 60, as the men worked their way through a thick maple grove, or sugarbush, on White Top mountain.
For several decades, the local Mount Rogers Volunteer Fire Department and Rescue Squad, to which Buchanan, Greer and Baldwin belong, has thought of maple syrup as a bringer of life: The volunteer organization uses the money it raises from syrup sales to maintain and fuel its vehicles and purchase new equipment, all to better come to the aid of Whitetop's injured, elderly and infirm.
Rural rescue squads and fire departments across the commonwealth use all sorts of fundraising events to finance their operations, from bake sales to car washes and apple-butter festivals, but the volunteers who serve Whitetop (population roughly 500) are the only ones to avail themselves of the George Washington & Jefferson National Forests' 1.8 million acres and their maple trees.
According to the U.S. Forest Service, the lifesaving outfit holds the sole permit to tap into the national forests' maples.
So it is that at the end of each winter, Greer leads a few hardy volunteers up the slopes of the state's second-highest peak, White Top mountain (elevation 5,520 feet), to begin another season of making maple syrup. Sometimes the conditions are rough. Last year, they trudged through 8 inches of snow as they set up a new system of rubber hoses to carry the tree sap down the slopes to a 1,400-gallon tank below.
For the most part, it's an affair of gray-haired men.
"The young people, they're not interested," Buchanan said. "They don't know about such things."
"People just don't volunteer the way they used to," offered Greer, who said he has made syrup since childhood. "And there aren't that many young people around anymore."
Still, the juice has to be collected over the few weeks of late winter and early spring, when alternating cold nights and warm days work to keep the sap flowing.
Last year, the rescue squad made more than 145 gallons of maple syrup, boiling between 50 and 60 gallons of sap at the community's "sugar house" to get a single gallon of syrup. Each year, squad members sell it at the White Top Mountain Maple Syrup Festival, held the final full weekend of March, charging $12 for a quart, $8 for a pint and $5 for a half-pint.
Greer said syrup sales raise between $12,000 and $15,000 a year.
Maple syrup has been one of the community's fundraisers since about 1973. In the first few years, the rescue squad and fire department made some of their own and also resold syrup they had bought from Vermont wholesalers. Unsatisfied with the quality, though, they began selling Highland County syrup alongside their product.
"We thought we could make a better product," Greer said of the decision to abandon Vermont syrup. "And we do."
This year, the volunteers tapped more than 1,200 trees on roughly 10 acres, Greer said, and 75 percent of the syrup sold at the festival will come from White Top mountain maples. In two years, he said, all of it will be homemade.
Their system is simple: Holes five-sixteenths of an inch in diameter are drilled in maple trees along a slope, and into each hole a tap is inserted. Small trees have one or two taps, larger trees have three or even six. A 2-foot hose runs from the tap to another hose that runs from tree to tree, always downhill, ending at the 1,400-gallon tank.
The clear liquid that drips from the taps when the temperature tops 40 degrees becomes a steady stream by the time it reaches the tank, which is periodically emptied into another tank on the back of a truck.
The truck hauls the full tank 5 miles down the mountain to a barn-sized sugar house in the community of Whitetop, where Ken Kilby, 70, runs the sap through an evaporator to boil the water out. The syrup that remains is put in bottles and sold at the festival.
Greer said the volunteers still use some buckets, periodically lugging them down to the tank to empty them, but the system of hoses has cut the workload tremendously. A vacuum pump also speeds the flow of the juice to the tank. Kilby said it's good that the work requires only a half-dozen volunteers, since youngsters seem more interested in racing cars than in making maple syrup. "We kid about our younger generation," he said. "We say, if you could put a steering wheel on it, they'd be more interested in doing it. But this manual labor without a steering wheel, they're not into it."