March came in like a lion this year. Let's hope she goes out like a lamb.

In the meantime, the sap's running!

For the maple trees, which need cold nights (no problem there) and warm days (problem) for the sap to flow right, it's a guess and by-golly dance every spring as to when's the best time to start tapping. But they've started, and chimney smoke rises from sugaring houses and backyard projects as folk are boiling down gallons and gallons of it to get Maine gold, or as some refer to it, "Northern Comfort": maple syrup. At an average ratio of 40 gallons of sap per gallon of syrup, that takes dedication and determination. With visions of pancakes soaked in butter and syrup dancing in their heads, the first spring ritual is under way.

It’ll be a race, now, for folk to get enough sap before the leaves get to be as big as a mouse’s ear. That was the measure used by the Native Americans, who first taught us how to make maple syrup, for telling the time to stop the tap for the year. (The Indians camped out at their maple groves for syrup time and they actually boiled down the sap in birch bark buckets. That sounds implausible, but you can experiment and find it totally possible. Just put water in a paper cup and put over an open fire. The cup will only burn down to the level of the water. Fascinating.)

Some of the sugaring houses in Maine still use a few of the horse-drawn stainless steel tanks that I remember from my childhood back in the ‘40’s.

Grampa and Grammie Tucker had many small enterprises throughout the year that only brought in a bit of money each, but put together allowed them to live a life of independence. The thousand trees was one of these money-makers.

Down in the forest a ways, the massive maple grove became a hive of activity come March. I remember thinking how magical, how Snow White-ish, was the grove of a thousand trees — give or take a dozen. Reached after walking through pine-dark woods to come into the sun-drenched grove with its sky-blue ceiling, it was a secret land where I was the exiled princess waiting for the handsome prince on his prancing white steed. (At that age, I think it was the horse that interested me most.)

And the horses were there. They weren’t white, but they were certainly majestic in their own right. Huge Percherons, powerful, prancing, snorting, glistening in the mottled sunlight, like the steeds of knights of old. To my young eyes, they were of mythic proportions. (Actually, they still are.) They were hitched to wagons that pulled the big stainless steel tanks brought down to collect the sap to take back to the sugaring houses.

In the grove, we had a giant, black iron “witch's" cauldron. Here, over a blazing wood fire, we boiled down enough sap to give us our own year’s supply of syrup.

My brother and I also had our “own” maples tapped back up at the farmhouse. We loved drinking the “sweet water.” Light, clear and cool, it was a magic elixir.

When we boiled down the syrup, we’d also pour some into the fresh snow – and we always still had plenty of that up in northern Maine – for maple sugar candy. It's getting hard to find – and to afford – real maple syrup candy nowadays. Mostly, it’s a blend, made with more corn syrup and sugar than maple syrup.

Hard to find or not, afford it or not, I always have to have some come each spring. There are some things that can’t be substituted. Nothing melts on your tongue like the real thing. Same with the syrup. It has to be the real thing. I would not give shelf space to any of the sugar-made "pancake syrup" sold in the stores.

All it takes is one good taste of the real thing to transport me back to the magic of the thousand trees grove – only today, I might be more interested in the prince.

Marion Tucker-Honeycutt, an award-winning columnist, a Maine native and graduate of Belfast, now lives in Morrill. Her columns appear in this paper every other week.