An abundance of sunshine brought an early sap run this year, with birch trees about two weeks ahead of schedule.

That left Alaska Wild Harvest staff scrambling to get the season started.

“We had to kick it in to high gear. Normally we have several weeks to get out here and start digging things out,” said Dylan Armstrong.

Armstrong has been with the company for 10 years. This spring he had to adjust his travel plans to get to Alaska from the Lower 48 about a week early.

He and the other workers had just a few days to tap 10,000 trees and check that the tubing weathered the winter.

“We have miles and miles and miles of tubing that all had to be walked to install, walked to dig it out of the snow. We have to walk that tubing to find leaks in our vacuum system,” Armstrong explained.

There are about 2,000 trees rigged with buckets to collect sap too. Katie DeMichele  is a “sap sucker” in charge of about 850 of those. She said it’s a job that’s constantly at the mercy of Mother Nature.

“Part of the job is rolling with the weather so it’s been like that every year and you just have to go with the flow,” DeMichele laughed.

The flow is slow to get going as sap trickled in to one of the pump houses.

“We’re waiting for the trees to really kick in. Right now they’re producing just under a half a gallon of sap a day,” Armstrong said. “Toward the middle of the season we’ll be getting a gallon of sap per tree per day.”

An early season comes with challenges. The first batch of sap came out April 1, Alaska Wild Harvest's earliest collection in 30 years of business. Three days later temperatures dropped and the trees froze up, effectively shutting down operations for several days.

“Everything takes a lot of time and to have a crew ready to go immediately and then tell them to stand down and stand by and don’t go anywhere because we might need you soon, it’s kind of frustrating, but we try to keep a good attitude about it,” Armstrong said.

There’s also equipment to worry about if the lines freeze. But owner Dulce Ben-East said it’s worth taking that risk to get production going as soon as the trees are ready.

“This is how we make our living. If you miss three days of that it’s a huge chunk of your production for the whole year. You get what you get in that three weeks,” Ben-East said.

That harvest volume is crucial to sustain them through the year. It takes more than 100 gallons of birch sap to make just one gallon of birch syrup.

In 2018, the company's 22-day harvest yielded 125,000 gallons of sap which was reduced to 1,100 gallons of birch syrup. Online, a quarter gallon of syrup is sold for $64.

There’s an upside to the freeze-up. When the trees began to thaw, Ben-East found what she calls “ice sap.”

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The frozen water stays behind when the sap is sucked out. She said that sap has a higher sugar content than sap collected later in the season.

“This is the batch we made right after the freeze, and that’s really – it's just the sweetest, smoothest syrup I’ve ever had,” Ben-East said about the syrup made from the April 6 harvest.

The forecast calls for warmer weather and staff plan to make the most of the sunshine because it won’t be long before the taps run dry.

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