It’s maple syrup season in Ontario, which means that the sap is flowing and the festivals are flourishing. We’ve hit a few different maple syrup events this year, and I have to say that they didn’t really light my fire, so to speak. You see, I’m from Elmira. Maple Syrup is what we do. It’s in our blood. The Sapfest, as we affectionately call it, is part of my self-declared ethnic identity. Ours is the world’s largest maple syrup festival and it is a big deal. The first year it ran, in 1965, they planned for a thousand or so and some 10,000 people showed up. Since then, it’s been circled on the calendar for locals and for tourists, who come from near and far to partake in the festivities. There are usually around 70,000 people who descend upon our small town for that one-day event each spring. And the day typically features freezing cold temperatures and sideways precipitation. And still the people come. It’s hard to feel too cold in a crowd like that!
I love everything about Sapfest. When I was young, I used to “work” at the festival with my best friend, Kerri Selby. I say “work” because we helped out at her family’s booth, selling summer sausage and pepperettes, but every hour or so her dad would give us a few dollars and send us out to get some snacks and have some fun. When I think about Sapfest, I think about the Selbys and I can almost smell the summer sausage. And all the other amazing delicacies....
Later, when I was a teenager, my dad sat on the planning committee for the Elmira Maple Syrup Festival. And that meant that I had a new job. He and I would be up in the wee hours of the morning to get the barricades set up. We would drive around town and erect the barricades that closed off the many different roads so that the festival could indeed take over the town. That was our thing – that early morning setup. I smile when I see those barricades now, and I wonder if there is another girl getting up early to share that job with her dad, before grabbing some hot apple cider as the crowds start to trickle into town.
When I was a young teacher, working at my hometown high school for the first year of what would be many, many years, I rented an apartment above the wallpaper store in booming downtown Elmira. It proved to be the perfect venue for that first Saturday in April when my front door would now open up onto the greatness that is the Elmira Maple Syrup Festival. The noise started early, too early, as vendors began to set up around 4am in the morning. My people arrived fairly early too (to beat the traffic) and soon my apartment was filled with friends and friends of friends. We spent the day going up and down the stairs, picking up various types of meat on various types of bread (there are many options at Sapfest) and other delicacies like apple fritters, fudge and cinnamon buns. We also spent far too much time hanging out the windows as we heckled those we knew down on the street below. It was a fantastic way to do Sapfest.
The next year, I picked up and moved to Kenya. As April drew near, I lamented that I was going to miss my beloved “maple syrupal festival”. My wonderful roommates surprised me with pancakes and real maple syrup on that first Saturday in April, and the weather, for once, was glorious. You can, apparently, get real Ontario maple syrup at Nakumatt grocery store in Nairobi. I definitely can’t find my favourite Kenyan treats here in Ontario, so Kenya wins the prize for most cosmopolitan, that’s for sure! It certainly was a very different way to celebrate Sapfest that year, but it meant something to celebrate, no matter where I was. As I said before, it’s my ethnic identity. I am as whitebread Canadian as they come and I grab on to whatever sort of tradition I can find!
When Russ came into my life, so did his girls, and I brought them all to the Maple Syrup Festival. It was so fun to experience it from the kids’ perspectives. There were activities and attractions that I had not experienced before, like the dog show and the rides. And when Henry came along, I had new sympathy for the parents out there who had been ramming my ankles with their strollers for decades’ worth of Sapfests. I don’t get to linger over craft tables anymore, and I can’t manage the really long lines for the really good treats anymore, but I sure do love taking my family to Sapfest and carrying on the tradition. I love running into people that I haven’t seen in years and years, and we block the flow of traffic as we introduce our families and reconnect before moving on. And two decades’ worth of students still smile and say “Hi Miss Raymer” as they shuffle past, many with families of their own now. The Maple Syrup Festival is like homecoming for Elmira and for me.
This year, we had the privilege of taking in the syrup festival with our new friends from Colombia – refugees who have just recently settled in our community. My parents like to include me in their get-togethers because I am the only one around who speaks Spanish. David and Juliana and their kids are absolutely delightful and a joy to show around. I’m sure the Sapfest was a bit overwhelming for them. I can imagine how I would feel if you threw me into a similar chaotic scenario in another culture. But they were armed with maps showing the way home to my parents’ place, and they all practiced saying “Can you help me please? I am lost.” before we headed out. Moving through the festival as a large group was a bit like herding cats, but we still managed to hit all the big attractions and some ones I hadn’t done before. David and his son, Julian, did the log-sawing and were the proud makers of a disk of wood with a maple leaf branded into its surface. The significance of the maple leaf as representing both the festival and their new country was profound for them and they were thrilled to have such a souvenir of their bitterly cold day at the Sapfest.
So, I will continue to try out other maple syrup festivals, but you can see that they are never really going to compare to Elmira’s for me. I have too much invested in Sapfest to let go and let another take its place. But since you can never have too much maple syrup and too much festival, we will keep on including other festivals in our early spring outings. We can embrace the new even while cherishing the old. Rest assured though, that you will always find me in Elmira on the first Saturday in April, no matter how predictably terrible the weather is. You don’t let a little bit of weather keep you from coming home where you belong. This post was going to be a quick top ten list of things I love about the Elmira Maple Syrup Festival, but I then realized that it meant so much more to me. Greater than the sum of its many wonderful parts, the Sapfest is really just a celebration of home for me.
Kari Raymer Bishop
Lover of Jesus, cheeses and tropical breezes... seeking balance in life, even as I embrace new challenges and chase new dreams. I am wife, mother, daughter and friend, as well as teacher, entrepreneur, activist, writer, beekeeper and hostess. Come along on the journey through my long-awaited midlife crisis!