In the maple forest, it's already spring.
Syrup cooks in a sugar shack at Norskedalen, near La Crosse.
It may look like winter outside, but maple trees know otherwise.
Their sap already has started to run, and that's "the sweet good-bye of winter,'' writes naturalist John Burroughs.
Indigenous people were first to tap trees, inserting hollow reeds, letting the sap drip into troughs and boiling it down over a wood fire. The process isn't much different today, except most people use metal taps, plastic tubing and buckets to catch the sap.
It's still a lot of work; it takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. But most people think real maple syrup is worth the effort.
In the awkward time between winter and spring, the promise of maple syrup also gives people a good reason to get outdoors and into the woods. Festivals across the region offer tours of the sugarbush, nature walks and, often, music and games in addition to tapping tutorials and pancake breakfasts with syrup.
In Minnesota, five state parks show people how to make their own syrup, and so do many nature centers. Here are some of the best festivals and events.
Sibley State Park near New London has programs March 21 and 28; call 320-354-2055. Whitewater State Park near St. Charles has programs March 14, 21 and 28; call 507-932-3007. Lake Maria near Monticello has demonstrations March 28-29.
At Wild River State Park near Taylors Falls, participants receive a share of syrup in return for three visits to the park, once to tap a tree, once to collect sap and once to cook the sap into near-syrup that can be taken home.
Tapping is March 8, and 14-15. Collecting is up to the shareholder, and cooking is on April 4-5 or 11; call 651-583-2925. People also can sit in on a session to learn about the history and process.
Register in advance at Whitewater, Sibley and Wild River; many days fill quickly.
Many festivals start early in the day. Costs are $5-$8, including breakfast.
March 7, Sweet, Sweet Spring at Norskedalen Nature and Heritage Center near Westby, Wis. The festival at this heritage farmstead in the picturesque coulees near La Crosse includes hikes into the woods to collect maple sap, nature walks, horse-drawn wagon rides, harp music, children's crafts and demonstrations of spinning, weaving, blacksmithing and folk medicine by the Driftless Folk School. There are snowshoes to rent, too. 608-452-3424.