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Photos: Birch syrup, the sweetest sign of spring

Mark Goudey, originally from Vermont, made maple syrup for 12 years before coming to Alaska to make birch syrup. Family-owned Kahiltna Birchworks has been producing birch syrup for 25 years, first on a remote homestead and now on a much larger scale in Talkeetna. Apr 29, 2014
Loren Holmes photo
Steam billows from the birch sap evaporator, which turns sap into syrup. Family-owned Kahiltna Birchworks has been producing birch syrup for 25 years, first on a remote homestead and now on a much larger scale in Talkeetna. Apr 29, 2014
Loren Holmes photo
Birch sap drips from a tap in the woods near Talkeetna, one of over 10,000 trees that Kahiltna Birchworks is tapping this year to produce their birch syrup. Family-owned Kahiltna Birchworks has been producing birch syrup for 25 years, first on a remote homestead and now on a much larger scale in Talkeetna. Apr 21, 2014
Loren Holmes photo
In addition to a traditional bucket system, Dulce Ben-East and Michael East also operate over 20 miles of tubing in Talkeetna to bring sap from over 10,000 trees to central collection points, where thousands of gallons of sap each day are trucked to the sugar shack where the syrup is made. Family-owned Kahiltna Birchworks has been producing birch syrup for 25 years, first on a remote homestead and now on a much larger scale in Talkeetna. Apr 21, 2014
Loren Holmes photo
Birch sap collects at a vacuum collection point in the woods near Talkeetna. Family-owned Kahiltna Birchworks has been producing birch syrup for 25 years, first on a remote homestead and now on a much larger scale in Talkeetna. Apr 29, 2014
Loren Holmes photo
Nearly 10,000 gallons of sap each day are brought to the sugar shack, where the water is removed to make 100 gallons of birch syrup. Family-owned Kahiltna Birchworks has been producing birch syrup for 25 years, first on a remote homestead and now on a much larger scale in Talkeetna. Apr 21, 2014
Loren Holmes photo
Because of the early snowmelt, Kahiltna Birchworks owner Michael East converts sap collection sleds to trailers which will be hauled behind 6-wheel all-terrain vehicles. Family-owned Kahiltna Birchworks has been producing birch syrup for 25 years, first on a remote homestead and now on a much larger scale in Talkeetna. Apr 29, 2014
Loren Holmes photo
Michael East adjusts the reverse-osmosis system, which takes birch sap, which comes out of the tree at 1% sugar, up to 10% sugar, before it is pumped into the evaporator and made into birch syrup, which is 67% sugar. Family-owned Kahiltna Birchworks has been producing birch syrup for 25 years, first on a remote homestead and now on a much larger scale in Talkeetna. Apr 29, 2014
Loren Holmes photo
A graphic in the sugar shack explains the process of converting birch sap into birch syrup. Family-owned Kahiltna Birchworks has been producing birch syrup for 25 years, first on a remote homestead and now on a much larger scale in Talkeetna. Apr 29, 2014
Loren Holmes photo
Birch sap flows from the evaporator, a Canadian-made machine designed for maple syrup production. Family-owned Kahiltna Birchworks has been producing birch syrup for 25 years, first on a remote homestead and now on a much larger scale in Talkeetna. Apr 29, 2014
Loren Holmes photo
Mark Goudey and Lucy Rogers pour birch sap into a holding tank, where it will stay until it is filtered and eventually bottled at a facility in Palmer. Family-owned Kahiltna Birchworks has been producing birch syrup for 25 years, first on a remote homestead and now on a much larger scale in Talkeetna. Apr 29, 2014
Loren Holmes photo
Dulce Ben-East holds a bottle of birch syrup from the 2014 season. Birch syrup will change flavor and color throughout the 3-week run. Family-owned Kahiltna Birchworks has been producing birch syrup for 25 years, first on a remote homestead and now on a much larger scale in Talkeetna. Apr 29, 2014
Loren Holmes photo
Kahiltna Birchworks owner Dulce Ben-East developed her own birch syrup grading system, modeled after maple syrup grading. Family-owned Kahiltna Birchworks has been producing birch syrup for 25 years, first on a remote homestead and now on a much larger scale in Talkeetna. Apr 29, 2014
Loren Holmes photo
Birch sap bucket taps in the forest near Talkeetna. Family-owned Kahiltna Birchworks has been producing birch syrup for 25 years, first on a remote homestead and now on a much larger scale in Talkeetna. Apr 21, 2014
Loren Holmes photo
Loren Holmes,Suzanna Caldwell

TALKEETNA -- At first glance, the setup at Kahiltna Birchworks seems like something out of a sci-fi movie. There are thousands of white 5-gallon buckets hanging off of trees, all filled with a clear, watery liquid that slowly oozes out the white birch trees to which they're connected. If there's not a bucket, there's a translucent blue tube attached and wrapped around the tree, some connected with a maze of wires. That same clear liquid gurgles and bubbles through the tubes toward a central collection point, a small, plywood building housing a gently humming diesel engine that sucks the liquid out and into a nearby 2,500-gallon collection drum.

Other areas of these woods have well-marked trails with names like "Yellow Brick Road" for the "sap suckers," a group of five people who wander through the boreal forest just off of the Parks Highway, north of the Talkeetna Spur Road. Each sap sucker has 850 trees apiece, each tree producing just under a gallon of sap a day, and they run through the woods, collecting hundreds of gallons sap to boil down into the "Kahiltna Gold" birch syrup.

Read more: Sweet signs of spring at Talkeetna birch syrup farm