MCDONALDS CORNERS, ONT.—Vernon Wheeler stands well over six feet, weighs 212 pounds and his big hands have spent years wrapped around axe handles.
But, there are days when he feels like wrapping those strong hands around his arch enemy — the cutest little furry animal in the woods — the chipmunk.
Wheeler is one of Ontario’s largest maple syrup producers. More than 400 kilometres of plastic tubing carry sap down to his sugar shack from the 20,000 maple trees he has tapped this spring in his 730-acre bush in Lanark County north of Kingston.
Other than ice storms, the omnivorous chipmunk is the biggest threat to his business — it loves to chew on plastic tubing.
He talks a tough game, but Wheeler doesn’t hunt chipmunks. He has lived in the bush more than 60 years and admits the little critters are a vital part of a healthy forest because of the seeds they spread. Besides, “they’re too doggone fast to hunt.”
Despite his daily patching job, Wheeler and his family still produce enough maple syrup to serve hundreds of delicious pancake meals each day to visitors at his large log cabin dining hall in the woods.
At this time of year the Wheelers will serve more than 1,000 diners on weekends.
The sap runs in March and April with mild days and freezing nights. It takes 40 gallons of sap to be boiled down to make one gallon of pure maple syrup.
Visitors can watch the process in the evaporation room, or hike though the woods and watch the sap making its way through the plastic tubing toward the sugar shack where the boiling occurs. And maybe even scare off a chewing chipmunk.
Wheeler’s Pancake House and Sugar Camp serves pancake meals and maple syrup every day of the year, but when the sap’s running there’s so much more to see.
His pancakes are served with homemade pork maple sausages and beans, plus there’s a lot more than pancakes at the camp in the woods.
It includes a 2,200 sq. ft. museum that houses the world’s largest collection of maple syrup paraphernalia, including instruments used by native peoples long before white explorers arrived on these shores. It explains the history and importance of maple syrup to Ontario’s economy.
Parks Canada has erected a national historic plaque beside Wheeler’s maple bush that designates the creation of maple syrup as a culturally significant event in Canada. Wheeler’s bush has been producing maple syrup for more than a century.
Wheeler built his huge dining hall with large logs he retrieved from old barns and abandoned farmhouses throughout rural Ontario. The wooden trusses supporting the roof were carved out of his bush.
A separate building houses more than 500 antique chainsaws and logging equipment Wheeler has collected from around the world during his more than 60 years working in the bush.
His nephew Tim has a blacksmith shop on site where he creates a large variety of metal crafts — from decorations to tools, to furnishings and artwork. His son Mark, Vernon’s wife Judy and their three daughters Angela, Kristen and Tracy operate the Pancake House, which is open every day during the year.
The farm is also home to free range sheep that wander hither and yon, plus exotic, purebred Scottish Highland steers with long hair and long horns — but they stand and stare from behind sturdy fences.
Ontarians celebrated the run in the south west of the province, too. More than 75,000 maple syrup fans gathered on the weekend in Elmira for the world’s largest maple syrup festival, but they didn’t see what remains of one of Ontario’s oldest and largest maple trees. It was more than 400 years old when it blew down in a 1991 storm near Elmira. A 100 lb. disc from the trunk sits in Wheeler’s museum.
More details about the sugar camp and how to get there are available at www.wheelersmaple.com.