Elixir of the Gods! 


For those of us still in the throes of cold snowy weather, here are four words that herald one of Canadian winter’s late marvels (and a sure sign that spring is around the corner):

The sap is running!

Inside maple trees (Sugar, Red and Black Maples anyway!) across much of Canada and the northeastern U.S., starch stored in the tree and roots before winter is right now being converted into sugar and rising in the sap of the tree. When these trees are tapped, the exuded sap is collected and boiled and, voila: Maple Syrup – the most delectable product the world has ever known, in my humble opinion.

Quebec produces about three-quarters of the maple syrup in the world, and being a Quebecker I say that with a small degree of pride. On the Canadian side of the border, you’ll also find Sugar Shacks, or Cabane a Sucres as they are lovingly referred to in French, in New Brunswick, Ontario, Nova Scotia, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and PEI.

With modern production, a new sugaring off season doesn’t mean necessarily a greater availability of syrup (it’s there on the store shelves year round and held in reserves in Quebec to control the market, much like is done with crude oil!), but you will get it at a lower price if you look. What the arrival of sugaring off season really means, particularly if you have young kids, is that it’s time to get in the car and head off to a Sugar Shack to eat a fat-heavy meal and celebrate the making of this amazing natural product.

From my experience, Sugar Shacks fall under two categories. First there are the generic, large-scale, almost corporate-seeming restaurants. These are typically clean and efficient operations but they lack much charm or connection with the family-scale origins of this tradition which goes back to First Nations peoples in pre-colonial times of course but was adopted (and adapted) by Europeans in the 1800s.

At these places you get a kind of traditional meal, which usually consists of eggs, bacon, baked beans, fried potatoes and, in Quebec at least, a bit of pea soup and of course “les oreilles de krisse”(delicious, curly, bacon-like strips made from pork cheeks).

Then you head outside to get some maple taffy – syrup poured onto snow. Then you buy syrup and head home.

If you’re interested in the traditions and craft involved in making syrop, the larger operations can be off-putting. Your better bet is to take a bit more time and search out smaller scale shack. What these may lack in modern facilities they make up for in charm and a feeling of authenticity. And you have a better chance of actually learning how the syrup-making process works.

Some of these offer access to fewer than 15 people which makes calling ahead a must.

If you live in Montreal like I do, a great option for these smaller shacks is to head to Calixa-Lavallée less than an hour east of Montreal on the south shore and follow the Chemin des Érablières. There are several great small-scale shacks there!

In major syrup producing provinces organizations exist to help you find a sugar shack and any other info you might need…recipes, how-to info, history, etc.

Here’s where to find them (oh, and have fun!):  

Quebec http://www.siropderable.ca/home.aspx

Ontario http://www.ontariomaple.com/directory/

New Brunswick http://maple.infor.ca/

Nova Scotia http://www.novascotiamaplesyrup.com/

Manitoba http://manitobamaplesyrup.com/

List of Sugar Shacks across Canada http://www.sugarbush.info/links/canadian-sugarbush/




Let It Snow, but Only on Your Stereo

I sit here in Halifax on March 1 reflecting on the crazy "snow-fear" that been raging over the past few days.

I left Montreal early on Tuesday, arrived here yesterday, and throughout the trip, the dark spectre of potential "snowmaggedon" loomed. Schools were closed, the approaching storm was everywhere in the media and on the street. But the funny thing was, until late last night, nary a flake had fallen. Last night, finally, we saw snow. No accumulation. But snow.

Call me a curmudgeon, but this was never the Canadian way. Hysteria over snowfall was left for places like Tulsa and Nashville, locations that see snow once a decade. But that reality is here. Is it ratings? Do the networks just want us glued to the TV? Who knows.

For a real snowy feeling (and I almost sprained my wrist writing that transition), you could check out a cool little musical project that originated in the West of Canada. Entitled Let It Snow (and the sequel, Let It Snow, Too), it's a compilation of original roots songs inspired by Canadian Winter. There are some beautiful pieces on both discs that evoke a real sense of this place and this season.

You can find them both on CDbaby.com. 





Those Brave Birds

Last week, after a long stretch of extremely cold weather here in Montreal, we experienced a two-day warm-up when temperatures got well above zero Celsius. On the second day, I was struck by the number of birds in and around the enormous cracked willow tree that stands 30 feet behind our house. It seemed almost like a scene from Hitchcock. There were some Finches, a few Common Grackles and even a pair of Cardinals amongst the 25 or so birds I saw. They brought life to an otherwise bleak February morning.

As I stared out, it occurred to me that I had no idea where these birds had been just a few days earlier during the stretch of intensely cold weather. Was there a resort somewhere? Did these birds have tiny homes in small subdivisions situated in empty fields? Did they turn on furnaces or recline beside cozy miniature hearths reading Richard Bach or Colleen McCullough novels? Despite the appeal of such a possible world, I strongly doubted it.

And it turns out the answer was kind of staring me in the face (well, the side of my face) in the form of the two large unruly cedar hedges that run along the sides of our property. In the harshest winter weather, those evergreens (and other conifers with dense foliage) offer shelter deep inside their branches. Some breeds of smaller birds will also take shelter in holes in dead or dying trees. We have a few large, older trees in various states of decay around our property, perhaps another reason for the veritable flock suddenly loosed upon my yard. If you’re like me, you feel a bit of sympathy for these intrepid little creatures. So with this in mind, is there anything we can do to help these beautiful little creatures get through the tough Canadian winter? The answer is yes.

First of all, keep your feeders well-stocked with suet, nyjer thistle seed or black sunflower seed. If you want birds to come to your feeder in winter, remember to put your feeder out in August or September. That’s the time to attract them for the winter months. And if you start feeding them in winter, they’ll come to rely on you, so keep your feeder stocked at all times.

Also, liquid water can be hard to come by for birds in winter. A heated birdbath (I know, luxury!) or any form of constant liquid water will certainly attract some feathered friends.

We also help birds through the worst weather by providing some shelter options. Brush piles are just what they sound like and are a simple way to create some quick, easy relief from the worst storms. A better option (for the birds) is a roosting box. This is similar to a bird house or nest box but larger. It’s not intended for feeding but rather to provide birds with a safe shelter from low temperatures and storms (and predators!). If you have bird houses or nesting boxes, birds will often use these. Just clean them out before the winter season. You can buy roost boxes or you can build your own quite easily. About.com has a wonderful roost box primer that will give you all the info you’ll need, including suppliers where you can purchase boxes or building kits.


In the interests of brevity, this little blog didn’t even touch upon the many fascinating (seriously!) physiological and behavioural adaptations that help birds stay warm. Again, About has them all here.


And lastly, if you see a bird looking cold, offer him a sweater. Birds love sweaters.


The Art of Winter... Canadian Style!


My wife took a course in Quebec art history a few years back, and I was always fascinated to hear her talk about the odd characters who painted the earliest scenes of winter in Canada. These images carried a lot of weight. For Europeans in the 18th and 19th centuries, they provided the first exposure to what Canadian winter was all about and generated a lot of interest in the new colony across the ocean.

Thanks for CW’s Judy Coffin for bringing my attention to this recent interview of Elizabeth Anne Cavaliere on CBC Montreal’s Cinq a Six. Cavaliere is a doctoral student at Concordia University in the department of art history who specializes in 19th-century Canadian landscape photography. She offers some cool tidbits about Canadian winter history too… such as that winter was the most productive season for early Canadians because getting around was in many ways easier—a horse drawn sleigh sliding on snow rather than a carriage slogging through the mud! You can check out the interview and look at the images in the viewing guide here:



Inventions that Save Marriages, Chapter 1: The Boot and Sneaker Dryer

Okay, so before I write this, I have a slight confession to make. It’s not so much a confession—there is nothing to feel guilty about. Call it what you will, but I have, in the past, been known to deal with certain unpleasant odours emanating from my footwear. I don’t want to overstate this, because honestly, it’s not been that serious. (It is illegal to attempt to contact my wife at this point. Believe me, she will corroborate what I’ve just said, particularly if she wants me to cook that new fish recipe I do now. My secret is top-quality capers.).

Anyway, this type of issue is often exacerbated by the inside-boot wetness generated by the extreme meteorological conditions we experience roughly 10 months a year here in Canada.

So, what to do. Up until recently, the answer was, for me, essentially the following: Take off my big ol’ Sorels when I came home. Hope they dried. Then, whether they had or not, put ’em back on and head out again. I did this repeatedly for days on end during the creation (non-creation?) of my ill-fated Backyard Rink over the holidays (see link). The result: Wet, aromatic boots. As my four year old would say: “Not fun Daddy.”

As my wife would say: “What IS that?”

To my overwhelming joy, now there is an answer, in the form of a new product, a gadget really. But don’t let that throw you off, because The Boot and Sneaker Dryer will change your life if you let it. Originally sold through TV only, this little gem has crossed over into retail. No staying up past midnight to make this purchase people! And it actually dries and deodorizes. And it’s so simple. You just place your upside down on the driers, fill the built-in baking soda tray, then turn it on and let the healing begin.

And you can use it on shoes, sneakers, gloves, whatever! Four batteries or an AC adapter and for less than $20 retail you can have the comfiest paws on your block. Smile at your neighbors. Let them know how good you feel.

And, as an added bonus, your wife won’t throw out your boots when you’re out at a hockey game because they smell so bad she just couldn’t take it anymore. Not that that’s ever happened to me.  

Product link: http://www.sears.com/non-branded-boot-and-sneaker-dryer-as-seen-on/p-00631381000P