Vermonters know that as the snow begins to recede, the sap begins to run. The warmer days and still-cold nights signal more than mud season: It's maple sugaring time.
For centuries, New Englanders have celebrated the end of winter and the start of longer daylight hours with ''sugaring off" parties. According to the New England Maple Museum website (www.maplemuseum.com), Native Americans showed European settlers how to tap trees and boil sap down to its crystallized form. Maple sugar was the primary source of sweetener in the Colonies until the introduction of cane sugar in the 1800s.
At first, most Vermonters produced maple sugar for family consumption. That tradition remains strong; today, there are more than 2,000 maple syrup producers throughout the state, many of whom make sugar for home use. Vermont leads the United States in maple syrup production. Last year's 430,000 gallons (valued at about $13.3 million) were nearly double the 265,000 gallons from second-place Maine.
''It's a rite of spring," says Vermont native Christopher Madkour, executive director of the Southern Vermont Arts Center in Manchester. ''When you see the steam billowing from the sugar houses, it gives you a little boost. It's the first sign that warmer days are coming."
It also signals a lot of hard work. Eric Severance, owner of Skinner Hollow Farm in Manchester Center, whose family has been sugaring for five generations, says, ''It's just something that we've always done. You dread it when it comes, but you miss it when it ends."
Even though buckets still hang from tapped maple trees in Vermont in late winter, the industry is undergoing a transition to more modern methods of collecting sap and making syrup. You can see it during the third annual Vermont Maple Open House Weekend next weekend, when more than 100 sugar houses across the state will offer tours, samples of maple products, and demonstrations of old-fashioned and newfangled sugar-making processes.
The southeastern Vermont region known locally as ''Manchester and the Mountains" is an ideal place to explore all aspects of sugaring. Between the Green Mountains and the upper reaches of the Taconic range, scenic Route 7A stretches along the Battenkill River before heading into the center of a lively town full of attractions.
Most local sugar houses are family owned and operated. . A great place to start is
Merck Forest is open year round for educational programs, camping, hiking, and visits to the 65-acre sustainable agriculture farm, where an array of crops as well as heritage breeds of pigs, turkey, and cattle are raised. Visitors next Saturday morning also can enjoy pancakes with Vermont syrup and farm pork sausage. A Celtic band is to play at 11 a.m.
In the sugar house, syrup will be boiling in the gleaming, wood-fired evaporator, which holds 500 gallons of sap and can boil 750 gallons per hour. The evaporator uses a device called a Steamaway to harness the steam energy that otherwise would be wasted. Educators will explain the machinery and the sugar-making process.
Tours of the ''sugarbush," the stand of syrup-producing maple trees, also will be offered.
''The sugarbush is 2 miles back in the woods," says Smith. ''If we have snow, it's a great ski or snowshoe. If not, bring your Wellingtons."
Those who make it to the sugarbush will see traditional buckets hanging from trees, but mostly they'll see what's called ''pipeline" or ''tubing," a network of plastic tubes that gathers the sap more efficiently. Merck's pipeline uses a vacuum system to further boost yieldsas well as very thin taps.
''The tiny hole does not dry out as quickly," says Smith. ''It's less vulnerable to bacteria that stop the flow. It defies conventional wisdom, but smaller taps equal more sap."
''What we get from the tree is only about 2 percent sugar," says Jacques Couture, president of the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association. ''It takes 40 gallons of sap to get one gallon of syrup. One average tree will give about 10 gallons of sap per tap per year, or one quart of syrup per year." A tree can take up to three taps, depending on its diameter.
Sugaring is a weather-driven process. Couture, proprietor of Couture's Maple Shop and B&B (www.maplesyrupvermont.com) in Westfield, near the Canadian border, has been involved in sugaring for more than 30 years. He explains the cycle: ''Sap flows when it's above freezing and stops when it drops below freezing. The cold temperatures recharge the trees. We need that alternating cycle between frost and thaw."
The season is short, just six weeks, generally early March to mid-April. This year started slowly because of warmer-than-usual nights.
Getting the taps on the trees in time for the flowing sap often necessitates hiking through acres of forest in knee-deep snow.
''If you don't take it when it comes, you lose it," says Couture. Pipelines create their own work; while sugarmakers do far less heavy lifting, they need to survey the woods regularly to make sure the tubes have not been disrupted by deer or moose.
The pressure's on when sap collection begins; the sooner it's boiled, the better the syrup.
''Unboiled sap will spoil like milk," says Wendy Dutton, whose Manchester sugar house also will be open starting weekend. ''We're open whenever we're boiling. People can come in any day they see the steam coming out."
Dutton's will have about 2,000 taps on pipeline with vacuum and nearly 500 buckets; the sugar house is near the sugarbush, so tourists can see the collection process easily and even help gather sap. While Dutton's sugar house is rustic, the oil-fired evaporator uses the latest technology, including a Steamaway and a reverse osmosis machine.
''It takes out nearly 75 percent of the water before the sap hits the evaporator," Dutton says.
''This is one of my favorite times of the year," she says of the sugaring season. ''It's work, but it's fun. I've done this with my brother since I was a child. He used to make me gather the buckets while he got to work in the sugar house. Now I get to stay in the sugar house."
She'd better enjoy it, since the boiling process generally takes more than eight hours and syrup must be constantly attended.
Severance also cites his childhood memories of sugaring: ''I'd go out tapping with my grandfather. My job was to drive the taps. He'd drill and I'd follow him around and drive the spouts in and someone else would hang the buckets. I've been doing it on my own for 15 years now. My children are getting big enough where they can help."
At his Skinner Hollow Farm, the small, wood-fired evaporator is more than 35 years old, and the pipeline is gravity fed. Severance calls this a transitional year. ''My sugar house is really old and small. It was built in '65; it's rustic, it's got a dirt floor. I'm going to build something more presentable." On Sunday, Severance plans to offer visitors a ride though the sugarbush in a haywagon.
In addition to the traditions of sugaring, Vermonters also have their own traditions of consumption that go beyond maple candy and syrup over ice cream or in coffee. One is sugar-on-snow: Syrup is boiled until it thickens to the consistency of taffy, then poured over snow to cool, and eaten with doughnuts and pickles.
Says Couture, ''The taffy's so sweet, you feel like having a pickle to cut the sweet, then maybe go back to having more taffy."
A lack of thick, new snow this year will put most sugar-on-snow parties on ice, but you will have a chance to join in at the official kickoff to the Maple Open House Weekend, when Okemo Mountain Resort will make fresh snow from pure Vermont river water expressly for the occasion.
Native Vermonter Ed Eagan, executive director of the Okemo Valley Regional Chamber of Commerce, recalls a family tradition initiated by his grandfather, Everet Vosburgh, in Chester.
''While the syrup was boiling in the pan we'd put eggs in there," Eagan says. ''You'd get hard-boiled eggs cooked in that maple-rich environment. They were not really sweet, but they had a faint maple flavor."
Back in Manchester Center, Northshire Bookstore, Vermont's largest independent bookseller (www.northshire.com), has several books on maple syrup lore and recipes. Leaf through the selections in the spacious new Spiral Press Cafe while sipping a maple latte, nibbling a maple corn muffin, or refueling with a sandwich that includes maple-smoked Gouda from nearby Taylor Farm.
To truly immerse yourself in maple, head to the new Avanyu Spa at the Equinox Resort on the Manchester Village green. On the list of treatments is a ''maple scrub," a full-body exfoliation using maple sugar-infused oils, followed by a multi-jet shower and an application of maple-based moisturizers. Don't go on an empty stomach or you may dream of pancakes throughout the treatment.
Bess Hochstein is a freelance writer in Great Barrington.