Uncle Berwyn’s Yukon Birch Syrup: From the Forest to Your Table
This story originally ran in the Fall 2014 (V8I3) edition of Yukon, North of Ordinary.
Lyndsey Berwyn Larson learned to make birch syrup in Alaska, in 2003, and spent the next summer searching for a good birch stand in the Yukon. He found it on a south-facing slope above the McQuesten River. It took him a week to hike in. On the way he saw bears and cubs, wolves, bald eagles, and lynx—he thought he’d found God’s country.
Around the same time, in another part of the territory, Sylvia Frisch wrote Berwyn a love letter on a cracker box. Now she and Berwyn live in the mixed forest below the birch stand, 14 kilometres from the North Klondike Highway, on a bumpy road where, if you’re on the cliff side of the car, you don’t want to look down.
Here in the forest they raise their two daughters, Selwyn and Lillia, grow vegetables and herbs, tap the birch, and make the syrup that has become a kitchen staple for home cooks and chefs in the Yukon and across the country: Uncle Berwyn’s Yukon Birch Syrup.
Sylvia says that somewhere in the territorial government’s files is a study that concludes birch-syrup production is not viable in the Yukon. But, she adds, “Berwyn didn’t read that study.” Since 2005, their annual yield has grown to an average of 750 litres of syrup derived from the sap of 1,500 trees.
The season starts in late March, when Berwyn does a big grocery shop in Whitehorse and rounds up the friends and volunteers who’ve signed on for birch-syrup camp. People and supplies have to be gotten in before the road becomes a quagmire; once the
thaw begins, the only way in or out is to walk.
Workers chop wood, clean and sanitize more than 900 buckets, wash several kilometres of plastic tubing, and install taps in the trees that connect to the tubing and pipes that deliver sap to holding tanks in the sugar shack. Six hundred trees are connected
directly. The other 900 are hung with buckets that workers pour into the pipes at regular intervals.
Sometime in May the sap starts to run, slowly at first, then picking up speed. Work ramps up to a frenzy. Thousands of litres a day come down the pipes into the holding tank and through a reverse osmosis machine, which removes much of the water. The concentrated sap is cooked in an evaporator until the sugar content is 60 percent and then heated on a propane burner until it reaches 67 percent. Fifteen cords of wood provide the fuel that runs the evaporator.
When the flow of sap slows down and the taste becomes bitter—usually just as the first birch buds appear—production stops and the process of cleaning and sanitizing the equipment starts again. As soon as the road is passable, the syrup is transported out by ATV and then trucked to Dawson City where it’s bottled and labelled.
A small crew of Berwyn, Sylvia, and four volunteers does all this work. (Selwyn and Lillia’s job is “to stay out of the way!” says Selwyn, age six.) Both business and way of life in this patch of forest are artisanal endeavours, built on experimentation and
refinement. “We’re always experimenting,” Berwyn says. “About 50 percent of our experiments work.”
Frugal repurposing of every by-product is the underpinning of the operation. Water from the reverse-osmosis process becomes drinking, washing, and laundry water. Berwyn mills the lumber for construction of outbuildings in a sawmill he’s built on-site. The sawdust is mixed with ash, kitchen waste, grey water, and human poop, and then composted in a three-year process that results in a clean, nutrient-rich mix. (Berwyn exhorts visitors, “Poop before you go!”)
Every time trees are felled for lumber, Sylvia establishes a new nursery patch of fruit trees or berry bushes. She builds herb and vegetable gardens on brush piles, an aspect of permaculture known as Hügelkultur. Under layers of earth and compost, the decomposing biomass contributes nutrients to the soil.
Their home is becoming a food forest. It is also a living room and school, a place of learning, adventure, and grace. “We’re the human part of the forest,” Selwyn says. “Some forests don’t have humans, but ours does.” Y