Uncle Berwyn’s Backwoods Boon

From his secret birch-tree stand near Dawson City, Lyndsey Larson boils and bottles a savoury syrup.

LYNDSEY “UNCLE BERWYN” LARSON SITS ACROSS from me in a clammy, raucous pub in Dawson City, Yukon. Over the barks and screeches of drunken patrons, we talk syrup. “Don’t think maple; don’t think pancakes,” he warns as I dip my finger in the dark, silky elixir that he cooks up on a secret plot of forest 140 kilometres east of town. On my tongue birch syrup is sort of spicy, rich and – Larson’s right – not necessarily what you’d want topping your pancakes, but better suited to fish marinades and dressings. “I eat a lot of this stuff,” he says with a wide, goofball grin.

Larson is 28, wiry, Prairie-friendly and the proprietor of a 66-hectare birch-syrup operation comprising some 4,000 trees. In 11 spring days, the chosen 500 trees will gush enough sap to make the 1,500 bottles of syrup Larson sells at several tourist-propped shops in and around Dawson. For what most guys his age would spend on a new car, Larson bought a truck-sized, steel boiler: the nucleus of his backwoods labour-of-love operation. Profits are a long way off, but Larson is unconcerned and thoroughly in love with his peaceful life among the slender, white trees.

Before arriving in the Yukon’s dusty, historic gold town seven years ago, Larson ran a boat-and-bicycle rental shop in Saskatchewan’s Prince Albert National Park. When business went sour, he became intrigued by a friend’s plan to help fight forest fires near Dawson. “I didn’t really have my own dream, so I followed my friend’s dream,” he says dramatically throwing up his hands. “There were no forest fires that year, but I sure fell in love with the Yukon.”

During his first few years in Dawson, Larson worked some truly odd jobs. He staked mining claims and shilled the famous “sour-toe cocktail” (a dismembered, frostbitten human toe pickled in Yukon Jack liqueur) at the Sourdough Saloon, in addition to “putzing around.” His desire to run a labourious birch-syrup operation began with another odd harvesting scheme. “I wanted to make an all-natural root beer, so I was researching natural sweeteners, and on some apocalypse website I found out that you can make syrup out of birch trees,” he says. Larson’s excitement bubbles and his language is peppered with plenty of “gollys” and “hecks.” Fully “stoked” about birch syrup, he next had to figure out how to make it.

On the web, he found a family-owned birch-syrup operation in Alaska’s Talkeetna Valley. He sent an enthusiastic email and shortly after, he was off to the valley to become their first apprentice. Between March and May 2004, Larson tapped trees, stoked fires, boiled sap and bottled syrup. “It’s an insane amount of work,” he says. “I think (the family) figured that by the time I saw how it was done, I wouldn’t want to do it. That’s why I have no fear about competition, because no one is nuts enough to work that hard for so little money.”

Back in the Yukon, educated and not at all discouraged by the effort that lay ahead, Larson scouted out a wide, well-hidden birch-tree plot with meaty trees and the perfect terrain. But to set up his dream business, he needed money: more than $30,000 for all the fixings, including a stainless steel wood-burning stove that slow-boils sap into syrup. “Nobody took me seriously,” recalls Larson. “I didn’t want to be that person who talks about doing something, then doesn’t do it.” Larson says his parents dismissed his plan as “just another one of my crazy ideas,” so he approached his uncle to co-sign the loan.

Larson ordered all the equipment from a Quebec-based company and literally waited with some friends along the roadside near his plot a few weeks later. It was bitterly cold but the Northern Lights kept them entertained. “At around 1 a.m. a truck came and we unloaded crate after crate of equipment – I couldn’t believe how much there was. It just kept coming off the truck.” Larson and his two pals hauled the heavy steel parts by snow machine along a winding, drift-laden trail – in the dark. Before they could even begin digging into trees, they had to assemble the stove. “We had to learn so much,” says Larson, eyes widening. “Everything from plumbing to masonry.”

After all the equipment-hauling and assembling, the real work began: chopping and collecting the piles of firewood required to feed the ravenous stove. (It takes a cord of wood a day to fuel the stove and process the sap – 80 litres of which produces just one litre of syrup.) In their first season – just under two weeks – Larson and his team worked 20 hours a day. That spring, they celebrated their inaugural harvest with a powder-mix cake, over which they poured the dark, new syrup. “We did a sort of ceremonial tasting,” says Larson. “We congratulated each other and gave thanks to the forest.”

By mid-July of that year, they had already sold a third of their of birch syrup batch – 500 bottles – at $15 a pop. Despite the promising sales, Larson was hardly breaking even. To get the syrup operation off the ground, he had quickly exhausted his loan and maxed out the credit cards. (He had to ask his parents for the rest.) But unfazed by his debts and financial challenges, Larson is energized for another season. “I can’t make a living off this quite yet, but for me it’s totally not about the business or the money. It’s just a good way to live – making your own stuff from the bush.”