The real March madness? Sugaring.

Steam from a sugarhouse in Vermont is like a neon sign in Las Vegas. It’s a sort of G-rated “come hither” glance. “I won’t see some people all year,” says Don Gale, a friend of mine here in Lincoln who has become a pretty serious sugar maker, “but if there’s steam coming from the sugarhouse, they’ll drop by. They’ll drop by at 2 in the morning.”

Indeed, when I saw steam rising into a cerulean blue sky from his sugarhouse this past Tuesday afternoon, I was drawn across the street and around the bend like a moth to a porch light on a June evening. We all know what awaits us inside the shack: A sauna with the aroma of maple syrup and, perhaps, a sample of the good stuff on a spoon or in a paper cup.

Gale’s operation isn’t massive. He and his good friend Evan Truchon do most of the heavy lifting with occasional help from their wives or Don’s two sons. But Twin Maple Sugarworks isn’t tiny, either. When Gale started sugaring in 1988, he tapped about 30 trees and boiled in a pan that was a whopping 3 feet long and 2 feet wide. This year he and Truchon have over 2,000 taps and somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 miles of tubing. The evaporator is about the size of a pickup truck: A whole pickup truck, not just the cargo bed. When I dropped by the sugarhouse earlier this week, it was already the sixth day this year that Gale had been boiling. He and Truchon expected to boil at least 975 gallons of sap that afternoon and evening, creating 24 or 25 gallons of maple syrup by the time they called it a night. (Don finally shut that shack door at 2 in the morning.)

I asked Gale if he could even begin to calculate his hourly rate, but he just shook his head and smiled. “My hourly rate is pennies,” he said. He and Truchon may end up producing 250 gallons of syrup this year (beginning, that means, with roughly 10,000 gallons of sap), which may gross $11,000. But sugaring isn’t a two or three week effort in March and early April. Gale and Truchon toil almost year-round and the sweet smell of that syrup is the result of a lot of hard work and sweat. “Even in the summer, there’s work. I’ll cut and stack 10 cords of wood,” Gale says. “And when the snow is up to my thighs in February I’ll be tapping trees in the sugarbush.”

But Gale has always loved the work — and this March more than most. After 10 years as a computer assisted design engineer at IBM, he was among the hundreds laid off on Jan. 27. And while there is certainly a degree of equipment and mechanics involved in his sugar-making operation, there is a big contrast between his efforts before a computer screen and his efforts in the sugarhouse. His principle activity when I was there was feeding the fire in the oven below the evaporator pan, a roaring inferno that looked like it belonged in a medieval castle.

And perhaps that’s a part of sugarmaking’s appeal for a 21st century producer like Gale. He sees moose and deer and peregrine falcons as he tromps alone through the deep snow in January, he builds a serious sweat as he chops and stacks a small mountain of wood in July. He — or his wife, Jodi — can drop a dollop of butter into the roiling foam of his massive evaporator and instantly still the sap.

Is this amount of work for such a small return a sign of madness? It may be just the opposite. “It’s as much fun now as it ever was,” Gale says. Then, after a brief pause, he admits, “I’ve always considered sugaring my therapy. And this year it’s been a lot more important than most.”

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on March 22, 2009.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.