Even if it looks like winter outside, you can count on maple trees to know otherwise.
In late February, their sap starts 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.
Here are some of the best events in 2020.
Maple Tapping for Amateurs and for Families at Riveredge Nature Center near Saukville, Wis. In two sessions on Feb. 29, learn how to tap a maple, collect and boil sap, and finish and bottle syrup.
Make your own in Minnesota state parks. In the Twin Cities, Fort Snelling's "Maple Syruping in your Backyard'' programs are very popular. They're March 8, 15, 22 and 29.
Along the St. Croix River, Wild River holds programs March 7, 15, 21 and 28.
In bluff country, Whitewater State Park near St. Charles has "Maple Syruping for the Whole Family'' programs March 7, 14, 21 and 28.
Register in advance; many programs fill quickly.
Many festivals start early in the day. Costs generally are $5-$10, including breakfast.
March 1, 8, 15 and 22 and 29, Sugarin' Off Pancake Breakfasts at River Bend Nature Center in Racine, Wis. After a big breakfast, go into the woods to see and learn about sap collection and syrup production.
March 7-8, Maple Syrup Festival at Cedar Heights Elementary near Hartman Reserve Nature Center in Cedar Falls, Iowa. There's a pancake breakfast and visits to the sugar shack.
March, 7-8 and 14-15, Festival of the Sugar Maples at Coral Woods Conservation Area in Marengo, Ill. Hike out to the sugar shack and see how maple syrup is made, then sample.
March 14-15, Sugar Bush Fair at Vera Meineke Nature Center at Spring Valley in Schaumburg, Ill. In addition to pancakes, there will be a pioneer sugar camp, puppet show and hayride.
March 15, Maple Syrup Sunday at Ledge View Nature Center near Chilton, Wis. At this center near Lake Winnebago, guests help find the maple tree, tap it, and collect sap.
March 21, Maple Fest at Red Oak Nature Center in Aurora, Ill. Naturalists take visitors into the forest to tap a maple, see how syrup is boiled and taste results.
March 21, Maple Syrup Festival in Byron, Ill. At the Heritage Farm Museum in Byron Forest Preserve, there will be hayrides, tours, children's crafts and a pancake breakfast.
March 21, Maple Syrup Festival at Wargo Nature Center in Lino Lakes, Minn. Learn how to make syrup, make maple crafts, go on a scavenger hunt and taste maple treats.
March 21, Maple Syrup Saturday at Gordon Bubolz Nature Preserve in Appleton, Wis. Go for a tour of the sugarbush and have a pancake breakfast.
March 21, Maple Sugarin' Festival at Riveredge Nature Center near Saukville, Wis. Learn how to tap a maple, watch demonstrations, enjoy music and games and visit the Sugarbush House.
March 21-22, Michigan Maple Weekend in southern Michigan. Visit sugar bushes to see how sap is harvested and made into syrup and candies.
March 21-22, Maple Syrup Festival at Indian Creek Nature Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Tap a tree, collect syrup, watch it boil and eat a pancake breakfast, with music.
March 22, Maple Fest at Covenant Harbor Bible Camp & Retreat Center in Lake Geneva, Wis. This historic camp on the lake offers a pancake breakfast, maple syrup tours, children's games and a craft fair.
March 28, MapleFest at the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chanhassen, Minn. The arboretum in this southwest suburb of Minneapolis will hold sugarbush tours and a breakfast, and admission is included.
March 28, Maple Sap, Sugar and Syrup Demo near Onamia, Minn. Staff at the Mille Lacs Indian Museum and Trading Post show traditional and modern methods of producing syrup.
March 28, Maple Syrup Day at Osprey Wilds Environmental Center (formerly Audubon Center of the North Woods) near Sandstone, Minn. Have a pancake brunch, learn how to tap maple trees and turn sap into syrup at this center just off Interstate 35 in eastern Minnesota.
March 28-29, Maple Sugar Days for Families in Franklin, Wis. At Wehr Nature Center near Milwaukee, visit an old-time sugaring camp, learn how to tap your own maple tree and boil sap, sample syrup on pancakes and go home with a set of tapping supplies.
March 28-29, Michigan Maple Weekend in northern Michigan. Visit sugar bushes to see how sap is harvested and made into syrup and candies.
March 29, Maple Syrup Fest in Monona, Wis. At the Aldo Leopold Nature Center, learn how to tap trees, watch the sap boil and try pioneer tools. It's free.
April 4, Maple Syrup Festival at St. John's Arboretum in Collegeville, Minn. Collect, cook and enjoy hot maple syrup over ice cream at St. John's University. There are horse-drawn rides, too.
April 4, Maple Syrup Festival at MacKenzie Center near Poynette, Wis.
This center between the Wisconsin Dells and Madison includes a pancake
breakfast, guided tours of the sugarbush, demonstrations of tapping and
syrup-making, intrepretive talks about how Indians and pioneers made
syrup, old-time music and horse-drawn wagon rides.
This area is a hot spot for Wisconsin naturalists.
Not far away, you'll find John Muir's childhood home, Aldo Leopold's
shack and the International Crane Foundation.
For details, see Pilgrimage to the Baraboo Hills.
April 4, Maple Syrup Fest in Phelps, Wis. In the northeast corner of Wisconsin, tour the sugarbush, tap trees, make maple taffy in the snow and shop at an arts and crafts fair.
April 4, Maple Syrup Festival in Vergas, Minn. Tour the sugar house, eat pancakes and go on a 5K run.
April 4-5, Michigan Maple Weekend in the eastern Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Visit sugar bushes to see how sap is harvested and made into syrup and candies.
April 25, Taylor County Maple Fest in Medford, Wis. This festival at the fairgrounds includes a breakfast, maple-syrup baking contests, cooking demonstrations and crafts plus music, children's activities and door prizes.
April 24-26, Maple Syrup Festival in Vermontville, Mich. It's the 76th year for this festival southeast of Grand Rapids, which features music, games, an arts and crafts show, Friday fireworks and a grand parade at 2 p.m. Saturday.