Artist, Maple Connoisseur and Co-owner of Culandubh Kennels
Clayton, Ontario – Lanark County
Laurel Cook is one of those people who bubbles over with contagious enthusiasm for life. For Laurel, that life is all about art, family, community, maple syrup and dogs (and not necessarily in that order). As a former prairie girl, Laurel’s background is as varied and interesting as her current life in Ontario’s Highlands; military career, painting, dog breeding and training, have been among the many paths she’s followed.
Today, Laurel and her husband, Ross, co-own the well-known Labrador dog breeding kennel, Culandubh Kennels, where Laurel has managed to combine two of her favourite things in life – dogs and painting – with fantastic results. Laurel is happy to chat about the things she loves best, including her discovery of maple syrup and how she ended up not only in Ontario’s Highlands, but specifically in the Maple Syrup Capital of Ontario: Lanark County.
A true prairie girl, Laurel grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba and spent her military career working in Winnipeg, Ontario, and B.C. Laurel and her husband travelled all over the world but decided to settle in small town Ontario.
"We were originally going to retire on Vancouver Island, but then we were transferred to Ottawa and when we drove out here to look for a house I just fell in love with this area," Laurel said. "It’s great for dogs, dog training and hunting. There’s so much creativity here, it’s amazing. I’ve lived all across Canada but have never seen anything like it, and I’ve been to many places in the world but this is where I want to live."
Laurel's military background camouflages a deep, artistic side and has evolved to create unqiue paintings of "people dogs," or portraits that capture the personality of a dog.
"I paint dogs dressed as the personality they remind me of the most. People can commission me to paint a portrait of their dogs, and I also paint other “dog moments” and a Christmas card every year. I have a really special connection with each painting," Laurel said.
When Laurel and her husband first moved to Ontario, they really wanted to immerse themselves in the old-fashioned rural community. Laurel explained their first fall blew them away - coming from the prairies Laurel hadn't experienced the fall colours that happen each year in other parts of the country, and especially in Ontario.
"It would blow me away because it was like somebody put on this yellow, gold, orange filter and you were walking through this tunnel," Laurel said. "It was amazing. At the time we thought they were just these nice colourful things, we didn’t understand the best colours came from maple trees, which make maple syrup!"
As Laurel explained, there aren't sugar maples in the prairies, so the only syrup she'd ever used was Aunt Jemima maple flavoured table syrup, which she laughed would "seem sacrilegious today." Having discovered a love of maple syrup, Laurel's favourite time of the year is naturally spring, and in the past she and her husband have made maple syrup on their own property to pay homage to the wonder of maple.
"In spring, half the conversation out here is about maple, and maple syrup takes over everything in your life. It monopolizes conversation - talking about when the sap will start to flow, what kind of a run it will be, how much syrup so-and-so’s made," Laurel explained. "It’s like when a fever consumes your body, maple fever consumes your life. We had to learn all the maple lingo when we moved out here just to understand what people were saying."
Laurel is not wrong. Maple syrup brings with it a unique language that true maple connoisseurs appreciate. Laurel ran down the list of lingo she's learned to incorporate into her world in Lanark County:
- Sugar snow: A light drifting of snow the day before and the next day the sap runs really fast.
- Sugar shack: A building where maple sap is boiled down.
- Sugar camp: Where sap is boiled down, finished, bottled. More extensive than a sugar shack.
- Sugar bird: The northern saw-whet owl, part of the saying “when the sugar bird sings, it’s time to tap the maple trees.”
- Sugar sand: The sediment that precipitates out from boiling down the sap.
- Flake: When using a dipper to test if the syrup is ready, the shape of the syrup dripping off is called a flake.
- Sunday buckets: Years ago, there was no boiling on Sundays, so larger buckets called “Sunday buckets” were used for collection so they wouldn’t run over.
"My favourite memories of maple season (other than eating it) is being there when they’re boiling it, and the steam is around the wood-fired evaporator. Ross boils it off in the sugar shack and I make supper (and of course you use a lot of maple syrup in there). I bring supper down to him and we eat it at the evaporator. It’s early evening, hushed and quiet. It’s a real experience when you’re at the sugar shack."