MORRISBURG -- It's mid-March, time for the "Maple Moon." That's what the Ojibwa called the magic month of early spring, the period extending roughly from the middle of March to the middle of April when, depending on weather conditions, the mighty maple trees gave up their sweet elixir to those populating what became central and eastern Canada after the Europeans arrived.
An Iroquois legend tells of piercing the bark of a maple tree and using the sweet water which emerged to cook venison. That accident is said to have established the culinary tradition of maple-cured meats.
Natives passed on to the first settlers the skill of tapping trees to obtain sap, and of boiling it to reduce it to sweet syrup or sugar slabs, which could be stored for later use.
The settlers liked the tradition and results so much they passed it on down the line with the ultimate result that, with refinements, "sugaring off" remains an Eastern Ontario rural rite of passage from winter into spring.
These days, sugar-shack connoisseurs don't have to wait for that slim yearly window to get their fix. Some bigger commercial operations -- such as Fulton's near Pakenham and Wheeler's near McDonalds Corners -- are almost always open, dishing out pancakes smothered in last season's syrup to those who just can't wait for this year's new batch.
But the height of maple madness comes with the fresh season.
We're now entering the 2005 Maple Moon, and at the Crysler Park Maple Sugar Bush near here, the season is celebrated in a traditional way, with demonstrations of pioneer sap collecting and boiling techniques, along with a display of aboriginal methods.
The bush, operated by the provincially funded Parks of the St. Lawrence, is open every weekend, 10 a.m.-4p.m., through mid-April. Admission to the site on Upper Canada Rd. is free, as are hikes along the Maple Sugar Trails and visits to the sugar shanty to watch sap being transformed into tasty treats.
Pancake picnics are priced by the item: pancakes topped with syrup, serving of beans, drink, $1.25; sausages $1. Also $1 per person are horse-drawn wagon rides to the shanty.
At Crysler Park, it's an educational as well as an entertainment experience, and that's also the thrust at the Sand Road Sugar Camp on Hwy. 138 near Moose Creek.
The camp, which works with forestry conservation groups, is open to visitors on weekends throughout the sugaring season. Activities include self-guided walks through the maple bush, horse-drawn sleigh rides, sap boils and snow taffy samples. The Sand Road camp also offers a maple-accented buffet.
Both Sand Road (sandroadsugarcamp.com) and Crysler Park (cryslersugarbush.com) welcome organized student tours.
South Nation Conservation forestry technician Chris Craig, who guides educational groups at Sand Road, says tours deal with the history and science behind the maple syrup industry, how to identify trees and woodlot management.
Not to be outdone, major commercial operators are also heavily into the educational component -- along with sleigh rides, musical entertainment and hearty maple meals.
At Wheeler's (wheelermaple.com), one of the world's most extensive collections of spouts, sugar moulds, sap buckets, jugs, tools and production equipment is on display in the 2,000-sq.-ft., dove-tailed log heritage museum.
Fulton's (fultons.ca) offers a Maple Run Studio Tour, tomorrow from 10 a.m.-4 p.m., of 10 locations in the Pakenham area, featuring wood-turning, stained glass, drawings and paintings, soapstone carvings, miniature quilts, tote bags and more.