Editor’s Note: This story was published in 2020. If a marriage is two people witnessing each other through the seasons of their lives, it could be argued that Doug Munroe
Editor’s Note: This story was published in 2020.
If a marriage is two people witnessing each other through the seasons of their lives, it could be argued that Doug Munroe and Waterfall Farm are similarly betrothed. When Doug threw a 40th anniversary party a few years ago, it wasn’t to pay homage to a human union; it was to mark the day he bought the acreage he’s standing on.
Doug — a man with a penchant for brimmed hats — found the land via a stranger at an old country store in the 1970s. Doug gave the guy his phone number and told him what he was looking for: clean water, farmable fields, and woods that were on their way to healing after being clear-cut for lumber, a practice that had historically decimated much of Ashe County’s woodlands. Doug, a lifelong tree-lover, felt duty-bound to protect them from further degradation.
A few days later, the man called to say he’d found the perfect place along Three Top Mountain. The land even had a waterfall. “I started building a shelter on Friday and moved in on Sunday. I didn’t have walls, but I had a roof,” Doug says, laughing. “It was all a great adventure — still is. But if you stay with a property long enough, things evolve.”
As years passed, Doug moved out of the shelter and into a house. His solitude dissolved with two chattery children. In 2006, a Vermont-raised neighbor, who’d noticed that Doug’s property had an abundance of sugar maples, suggested that Doug try his hand at tapping 10 trees along his driveway to harvest sap, which he could then boil down to syrup on his kitchen stove.
Slowly, Doug began to realize that while he’d been working the property’s open fields — which he’d seeded with exotic trees as part of a plant-nursery business — the native trees circling his home had been laboring, too, particularly the maples that had been saplings when he’d found the place. By the time he was considering retirement, his syrup-making operation had grown large enough to be relocated to an open fire in his driveway. And in 2010, it became obvious that a sugar house, state-inspected and -certified, was needed to share his land’s offerings.
“When I was younger, a lot of my maples weren’t ready, and I didn’t have the wherewithal to know how to go about making syrup,” Doug says, making the short walk from his kitchen door to the sugar house. “But now, these trees are mature, and I know what to do with them. We’ve grown into this together.”
Doug’s daughter, Wheeler Munroe, is sitting in a chair by the sugar house evaporator — a large machine that boils sap down to syrup — when he rolls the barn door open. She doesn’t flinch when he dumps a load of firewood at her feet: tulip poplar, selectively harvested to allow sunlight into the forest where needed.
When Doug and Wheeler are making syrup, one of them sits by the evaporator’s woodstove all the time, since the fire must be fed every five minutes. As raw sap, harvested on site, boils its way through the evaporator, its sugar content condenses. It takes about 60 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.
The sugar house has a fan that’s almost always on. It’s loud, which makes it difficult to talk. Even with fans and blowers — given that the evaporator turns more than 70 gallons of water into steam each hour — the place feels like a sauna. But with the five-minute drill, there’s no time to relax.
It takes more than 60 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.
Wheeler catches Doug’s eye. It’s time. He opens the cast-iron door to the stove and tosses wood in. They used to use timers, but the periodic buzzing was jarring, so they’ve learned to depend on meticulous attention. “We use a lot of body language to communicate in here,” Wheeler says. She glances at her father, nods to let him know he’s on deck to pick up the next round. Then, she opens the back door and steps out.
Wheeler loves the sugar house, but for her, the best part of the syrup-making process — aside from the time it allows her to spend with her family — is that it affords a continued relationship with the woods she played in as a child. She was living in California when she first tasted Waterfall Farm’s syrup, mailed by her father. She’d been studying woodworking out West, using tools and solving tactical puzzles. Everything she learned there has ended up informing the way she approaches her family’s tree-centered lifestyle.
Each season, just before it’s time to start boiling, Wheeler and her husband, Michael Waldeck — now Waterfall Farm residents — drill small holes into maple trees and hammer in taps that then weep sap into plastic tubing. They add a few trees each season. But already, they have more than 500 trees on tap, making Waterfall Farm one of the largest syrup operations in the South.
Wheeler hikes uphill to check a holding tank. The farm recently invested in a line vacuum to collect sap more efficiently. In a storage chamber, sap, clear as pure spring water, splashes against plastic as it continues its journey toward the sugar house. From where she’s standing, this year’s delivery lines look like a network of blue veins.
A breeze picks up. It’s cool against Wheeler’s cheeks, still flushed from the evaporator’s heat. She’s always hot by the fire, cold outside while gathering wood. This hot-cold experience mirrors what trees go through to produce sap. The liquid is pumped from a tree during freeze-and-thaw temperatures.
“The harvest begins at the very end of a tree’s dormancy period, when things start waking up,” she says. “The first of February is typically when the syrup season begins, as a tree starts breaking down its stored sugars, readying itself to make flowers and leaves.” It’s that sweet embodiment of longing — dormancy on the edge of bloom — that gets bottled here.
Wheeler is fond of sampling syrup — which is sold by the case to regular customers, available through High Country Food Hub in Boone, and sold at the Ashe County Farmers Market — but on days like today, she prefers to gulp raw sap, otherwise known as tree water. It has roughly 1 percent sugar content, as opposed to the 66 percent in syrup. She traces a delivery line back into the sugar house and opens a valve to pour herself a glass. It tastes like caramel-infused rain, like autumn leaves falling through golden-hour sunlight. “Perk of the job,” she says.
In one corner of the sugar house, there’s a vat of syrup warming, ready to be filtered. It holds the wealth of what was produced during the last boil, and, in nearly imperceptible ways, it’s different from what’s being made today. No two sessions in the sugar house produce the same syrup, because, outside, nature is always processing.
“Our syrup, Southern Appalachian syrup, doesn’t have that traditional maple flavor like they get up North,” Wheeler says. “It’s a little more butterscotch. Like brown sugar with a touch of vanilla. The flavors start with floral tones early in the season. Later, they’re more molasses-like, complex. And they get progressively darker, redder, as the season goes on.”
A few years ago, a wine engineer ordered a bottle from every day that the Munroe family boiled in a single year, so he could trace the transition of these natural-world flavors the way a sommelier assesses the notes of fine wine. “I’m not a professional taster,” Wheeler says. “So I don’t really know that I’ve ever found the right words to describe our syrup.”
Her father shakes his head, wondering if it’s even possible. “It’s like trying to describe the color blue to someone who’s never seen it,” he says.
Doug has been sipping tree sap, in its various stages, for hours. It’s time for him to eat something solid. On his way back to the house, he explains that in 2019, 1,000 adjacent acres of Three Top were placed under protection by the Blue Ridge Conservancy.
Meanwhile, the surrounding trees will grow on. And, around the property, saplings will continue to rise. “I can rest easier now that this is all protected,” Doug says, looking toward one of Three Top’s most rugged peaks. “A lot of good has come from making syrup, but that it played a role in bringing Wheeler and Michael here has been the greatest thrill.”