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Every spring as the snow starts to melt in the hills of Mono, Ont., my dad dons his puffy red ski instructor jacket. Then he struggles through knee-deep snow to drill holes and sink silver spigots into dozens of sugar maple trees throughout our woodlot.

For as long as I can remember, my father has carried on the family tradition of making maple syrup the old-fashioned way - boiling the clear sugar water for days over smoky flames until it turns to liquid gold.

Weekly weather reports from my dad signal the start of maple syrup season. He eagerly anticipates the precise combination of sunny, warm days and frosty nights that will rouse the maple trees from their winter slumber.

I still don't know how he can tell which of the thousands of leafless trees are sugar maples. Thankfully, I have never been put in charge of the selection process, otherwise we might end up with "multitree blend." The only trick I have learned is to spot the top sap runners by counting the number of small, round spigot scars encircling the base of certain trees.

After the holes are drilled, the spigots are hammered in and the metal buckets are hung, there is nothing to do but wait for the sap to run. Unfortunately, the notion of sap running is somewhat misleading. Sap runs like an old, leaky faucet that drips slowly, drip by aching drip. By day's end you might end up with half an inch in each pail or half a bucket full, depending on the sun's warmth and the tree's generosity. I have never had much patience for this part of the maple sugaring process.

When we were snowsuit age, my brother and I each had our own plastic bucket with our name written in Magic Marker on the side. It was a fierce (and frustrating) weeklong competition to see whose bucket would fill first. Although my recollection on this point is hazy with self-interest, in all likelihood I cheated, adding snow to my bucket or emptying some of my brother's sap. Lucky for us, at the end of a weekend of boiling, the prize was the same whether we had won or lost - sticky maple toffee poured over snow and then wrapped around Popsicle sticks.

Even the dog learned to play a part in this family tradition - with a quick jerk of her nose, the lids on the sap pails flip up to reveal the sugar water, much more appealing than snow or her frozen water bowl.

In return for his share of the spoils, one of my dad's friends from his teaching days has become his maple co-conspirator. He helps my dad supervise the several days of boiling it takes to turn the gallons of sap into far less syrup. Over the years, they have honed the process into a fine science.

Instead of the sap icebergs that used to form every time another frozen bucket of sap was added, calming the rolling boil in the pan, they use a modified blue cooler that adds a steady stream of melted sap. The once-rickety lean-to now has a wall to break the wind, and the boiler is set on a sturdy hearth made of stones hauled up from the creek bed.

In spite of these improvements, I am comforted that my dad and his friend never seem to change too much from year to year. They still sit hour after hour in their folding lawn chairs in the snow, stoking the fire, sharing a bottle of red wine and the comfortable silence that comes from decades of common purpose.

But I have noticed of late that they're a little greyer around the temples and seem to sink a little lower in their chairs than they did 20 years ago. Certainly the snacks their wives pack have become healthier.

Although my dad's sticky, smoky ski jacket has seen better days, it speaks volumes about the things he values most - family, tradition and a good day's work.

In the 30 or so years before my parents built their retirement home nestled deep in the woodlot, friends and family would gather around the picnic table in the smoky warmth of the sugar shack to share a glass of cheer, friendly banter and steaming maple baked beans, oblivious to the lack of amenities and the sometimes unpredictable March weather.

Recently, however, my mom has begun to draw more and more folks out of the snow and into the comfort of her kitchen. Syrup may sweeten the soul, but she makes sure that stomachs are full and cold hands are warmed by the hearth.

Next month we will celebrate her 65th birthday on the same day as my parents' annual maple syrup fest, an event sure to draw even more friends and family up to the woodlot. We will all raise a glass for my mom and toast her remarkable ability to bring style and warmth to everything our family does - even if it is just beans on a rickety old picnic table.

Each year I gain a bit more of an appreciation of the delicate balance between art and science involved in maple sugaring. My hope is that one day my son will be keen to learn what his grandma and grandpa can teach him about the sticky golden liquid that flows through our family tree.

Heather McGhee Peggs lives in Toronto.