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March Maple Syrup Time

Probably the best thing about March, that fickle month that has parents bouncing back and forth between snowsuits and baseball caps, is that the sap in the maple trees begins to run. It's then that you can pop the kids into the car and head for the nearest sugar bush. Last weekend, we joined the line-up of cars at Bruce's Mills Conservation Area in Stouffville to taste the first sugaring off and sample a stack of pancakes loaded with syrup and sausages.

Our tour took us along the Maple Syrup Trail where tin buckets hung from the maple trees, past the First Nations teepee and the tradional cut-out log container to a trio of huge iron caudrons filled with syrup smoking over roaring fires. Our tour guide handed out sweet liquid in tiny paper cups, introduced us to his black horse, Joe, and told the story of how horses used to pull a hog's head bucket (shaped like a pig's nose) from tree to tree to collect the sap. Nowadays, miles of rubber tubing do the job.

For kids, watching maple syrup being made is almost like watching a miracle happen. As the water-like sap from the trees is boiled vigorously, either in a cauldron over an open flame or by an evaporateur, the water disappears and the liquid turns into a dark, gooey substance sweet as candy. What about my usual cautions against eating snow? They disappear as hot, boiling syrup is splashed onto a pile of fresh white stuff to make snow taffy.

Kids will also enjoy the stories of how the Woodland Indians discovered the wonderful elixir and how the pioneers, such as Laura in Little House on the Prairie, collected sap, made maple cakes and drove their sleigh to a sugaring off party. Legend has it that the syrup was discovered by a native Chief, who pitched his tomahawk into a maple tree one night. The next morning, sap dripped from the gash in the bark into his wife's cooking vessel sitting at the base of the tree. She used the sweet water to cook her venison. Voila! As the dish was cooking, the sap changed to a dark, sweet syrup that flavored the meat. A brand new taste sensation that hasn't let go.

Apart from our nearby sugar bush operations such as Bruce's Mills Conservation Centre in Stouffville (416-661-6600), the Kortright Centre in Kleinburg (905-832-2289) and a small operation at Black Creek Pioneer Village, there are numerous events and festivals which families can attend. Some hotels, such as Deerhurst Lodge in Muskoka near Huntsville stage maple syrup weekends with especially sweet hotel packages. For those wanting that first taste of spring, here's where to find it:

WESTFIELD HERITAGE VILLAGE: At this historical 1860s village of over 30 buildings between Dundas and Cambridge, Ont., learn about maple syrup from the early "settlers." The Maple Syrup Harvest, (March 22,29 and April 5,10 and 12, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.) offers hay rides, demonstrations and pancakes. Call (519) 621-8851 or 1-800-883-0104 (905 area code). Admission: $5.50 per adult, kids six to 12, $2.50.

CRAWFORD LAKE CONSERVATION AREA: If you want to experience sap as our first countrymen did, namely the Woodland Indians, head out to this always fascinating wilderness area near Milton, Ont. In the reconstructed Indian Village including an awesome longhouse with bunk beds and animal skins, kids will discover original syruping methods-cutting a gash into the trees and letting the sap drip into birchbark buckets. Heated rocks were thrown into the liquid until it boiled. This must have been a painstaking process when one learns that it takes 40 litres of sap to produce one litre of syrup. Call (905) 336-1158.

DEERHURST LODGE: Originally tapped by a local family, the surrounding maple grove trees are maintained by the hotel. Staff at the lodge near Huntsville will take guests out to the sugar bush via horse-drawn sleigh throughout the month of March but the March 27-29 weekend is Maple Syrup Weekend. A special package for $289 per person offers accommodation, Saturday breakfast and dinner as well as Sunday brunch, tickets to the musical show, a trip to the sugar bush for a hot drink and syrup sampler, cooking demos and a take-home pancake kit; kids under 18 sleep free but pay for meals. Call 1-800-461-4393.

QUEBEC: There are over 400 sugar shacks in operation throughout the province where "sugaring off" parties are a century-old tradition. One of the most famous is the Sucrerie de la Montagne in Rigaud, about 45 kilometres west of Montreal. Dressed in 19th-century pioneer clothing, Pierre Faucher attracts overnight tourists from around the world. Take a horse-drawn ride through the maple grove, visit the wood-fired bakery, enjoy a Quebecois feast in a 100-year-old resotred barn of maple-glazed smoked ham, wood-fired baked beans, maple-smoked bacon and sugar pie. Yum! Sleep overnight in a log cabin, adults $125, including dinner and breakfast, kids under 13 half-price. Call (514) 451-0831.





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