Spring Ahead

Springtime in many parts of the world is about the budding of trees and the greening of the earth and wafts of warming air. But spring in Vermont is instead about a release from winter. Snow is released as trickles of melt that feed rivers and streams; frost is released from the ground to turn roads into a muddy mess. Daylight lengthens, with the sun released from its low winter arc. Maple sap is released from its frozen winter bonds, to be boiled and turned into syrup.

Spring engenders conflicting emotions: hopefulness, with the promise of warm days ahead; annoyance at the mud; impatience with the delayed arrival of real warmth and green grass; the giddiness that comes with the expansion of playful possibilities. A morning of skiing can be followed by a run or a bike ride or a kayak run down the melt-fed waters of the Mad River.

By the time the Vermont version of spring starts nudging its way into the Valley in March, residents of southerly states are becoming seduced by the more pronounced influences of spring (greening golf courses, daffodils, crocuses, and cherry blossoms appearing). Enthusiasm for trekking north and back to the final clutches of winter ebbs.

But despite the occasional mud and the intractable persistence of winter, spring in the Mad River Valley can be a truly joyful time if you know how to make the most of it. Here you go — five ways to find happiness in a Mad River spring:

Visit a sugarhouse. No activity better symbolizes the coming of spring in Vermont than the time-honored conversion of maple sap into syrup and other sugary products. It’s a process that is not only time-honored but time-consuming — hours spent boiling sap in a sugarhouse to turn it into the sweet, 1-in-30 reduction that is Vermont’s signature agricultural product.

For a list of sugar-makers who openly welcome guests, go to vermontmaple.org. But this list is woefully incomplete. There are no doubt a few grumpy sugar-makers who discourage visitors, but they would be hard to find. In a long-standing Vermont tradition, when steam is seen rising from the turret of a sugarhouse, it is customary to stop in, sit on the log pile, and exchange stories with the sugarer as he engages in the slow, syrup-making process. Of course part of that tradition is sampling — someone needs to help the sugar-maker make sure that what he’s producing meets the taste test to qualify for sale to a syrup-happy public.

Take a naturalist snowshoe tour. The woods are full of critters, and perhaps the best way to track their activity is to follow the evidence they leave in the snow. As the days lengthen and warm up in March, many animals become more active, and there is still snow around to provide trackable evidence of what they’re up to. An example: according to Carol Thompson, a naturalist guide at Ole’s Cross Country Center, in late February and March, you start seeing fox tracks in pairs, as red fox pair up to breed and raise their young. Both Ole’s (496-3430) and Mad River Glen (496-3551) offer naturalist-guided tours. Call ahead for scheduled tour times.

Go pond skimming. The transition from winter to spring is as much about melting as anything else, and pond-skimming is a celebration of melted snow. In theory, the objective of the 100 entrants on March 21 at the bottom of Spring Fling at Lincoln Peak is to carry enough speed down the in-run to skim the entire length of the 40-foot pool of snowmelt. In fact, if you want to achieve maximum appreciation from the large, assembled audience, execute a high-speed, belly-flopping crash and there will be a crescendo of approving cheers. (Sometimes, successful pond-crossers, especially on easy-to-skim snowboards, get booed.) Wear the whackiest costume and make the biggest splash, and you’ll be the honored life of the party. All for twenty bucks. For info, go to sugarbush.com

Après ski al fresco. Daylight savings starts March 14 this year, and nowhere is the coming of daylight savings celebrated with greater fervor than in Vermont. The abbreviated days of December and January are replaced with a mid-afternoon balminess — balmy at least by Vermont standards — and finding a sun-drenched deck to kick back and hoist a brew from Long Trail or Otter Creek becomes almost de rigueur. The best après sun spots — the upper deck at the Mt. Ellen base lodge, the Basebox deck at Mad River Glen, and the south-facing deck at Ole’s Cross Country Center (though there it’s BYOB).

Enter the Sugarbush Triathlon. No event better symbolizes the collision of winter into spring that the Sugarbush Triathlon now in its 32nd year. Actually, it’s not what it claims to be — it’s a four-leg event: a run, followed by a canoe or kayak run down the Mad River, followed by a bike leg, and finishing with a cross-country ski loop at Mt. Ellen. The joys of summer recreation enjoin with the last vestiges of winter recreation. New this year: proceeds from the event will benefit the local Mad River Path Association, so your sweaty, aerobic input will be going to help a good cause. The event date is April 11; for more info, go to sugarbush.com.