“If the trees are gone, then our livelihood is gone,” says Al McLauchlan.
Last year, the trees produced more than 500 liters of birch syrup for McLauchlan and his wife, Johanna, who are co-owners of Rocky Lake Birchworks, a family-owned and operated business that specializes in natural products harvested from the boreal forest.
The boreal region of Canada stretches across more than a billion acres, and is one of the largest intact forest ecosystems on Earth.
Al says of the syrup, “I like to describe it as a molassesy taste. Other people have said a spice taste to it. It is a bit of a rare business. We have about 10 producers across Canada.”
McLauchlan and his family decamp to the bush while they are in production – something they have to time right as they need the sap to be rising in the birch trees in the spring.
“My wife and I get to spend a month out in the bush. Our son comes out and helps us whenever he can.”
Al talks about the remoteness and that there is no cellphone coverage where they spend their time…
“No one knows what’s going on over here. If you get injured then you fend for yourself. If you have a breakdown of some equipment you have to kind of figure out how to fix that yourself.”
“Our busy season starts usually about spring break every year. We start to prep the site by going out and clearing the trees off the lines, putting lines back together that have been chewed by bears and squirrels and other critters.”
“The tapping of the trees doesn’t start until about the middle of April, the latter part of April, when we’ll actually tap the trees, and the production usually starts at the first of May.”
Birch sap is not the only sustainable resource Al and his family harvest from the boreal forest.
“We’re always interested in seeing what the boreal can produce for us and we all know that there’s a number of medicinals and foodstuffs that can be produced from the forest without harming the forest.”
Chaga, Inonotus obliquus, is something which they also collect from the birch.
“So chaga is a mushroom that grows on the birch tree and we harvest that. We dry it and then we grind it up and make teas out of it. And we also mix it with different other products, for instance wild mint. We’ll take the wild mint from the shores and dry it and then mix that with the chaga.”
“As a family, we’re very proud of what the boreal has given us. We’ve introduced a new product to Canada and we’re very proud that the forest has given us the opportunity to do that. And it’s through hard work and experimentation that we can do that.”
Time spent in the forest, tending the trees, harvesting sap and other produce and living close to nature is also highly valuable family time for the McLauchlans.
“We can come out here as a family, we can produce as a family, we can spend time together as a family. I think it’s probably one of the most important times for us to be out here and just rejuvenate our whole souls, rejuvenate our whole body. We only eat when we’re hungry. We sleep when we’re tired. We get up with the sun. We go to bed with the sun. And when we get out of here it’s just – ahhh – we can’t wait till we get back here again.”
And of people coexisting with nature sustainably, Al has this to say…
“There has to be that interaction between people and the environment. There has to be a way for us to coexist. Are you going to get rich by doing something like this? Probably not, but at least you’re going to get that opportunity to have the enjoyment that we do. You can come out, you can spend time in the bush. You can see animals, and you can produce a product that people like.”
“Without the land we have nothing. So we need to protect those trees.”