MONTPELIER, Vt. — Vermonters are a hearty lot. After a morning on the cross-country ski trails at Morse Farm, they line up at the snack bar where signs offer hearty bowls of chili and steaming cups of hot chocolate. But almost everyone — adults and children alike — opts instead for a swirled cone of maple creemee, as soft-serve ice cream mixed with maple syrup is called in these parts.
That is just one of the advantages of hitting the trails at this maple sugarworks established in 1948 and now run by father and son Burr and Tom Morse, the seventh and eighth generations of a family that began making maple syrup in Vermont around 1780. Burr, by the way, is often credited with introducing the maple creemee, though he modestly demurs that it was simply a matter of adjusting a standard recipe for soft-serve ice cream. “We do add a lot of maple syrup,’’ he says. He is also locally famous for his secret-recipe Maple Kettle Corn.
About 10 years ago, Burr decided to open up the property for winter recreation. Former Olympic skier and biathlete John Morton designed the trails to follow the gentle contours of the land across open pasture and into piney forest, sometimes even skirting the edges of the maple groves. The farm offers 15 miles of machine-groomed cross-country ski trails and 2.5 miles of back country snowshoe trails, some with views of Camels Hump and the Worcester Range, just south of Stowe.
On a bright but brisk Saturday morning in early February, Nordic skiers were out in force to take advantage of the thin layer of snow that had finally coated the trails in this virtually snow-free winter. We found slightly deeper cover when we chose instead to follow a snowshoe trail into the woods. Snowshoeing may lack the grace and speed of skiing, but we have come to appreciate the chance to survey the winter landscape at a slower pace. Except for a few bird calls and the crunch of our shoes breaking the crust beneath the overnight dusting, the woods were hushed.
We stopped often to study the variety of tracks that revealed little stories. A circular flurry showed where two chipmunks had chased each other around a tree, while the pointy toes and smoosh of snow between steps indicated a porcupine wending its way through the woods, dragging its tail behind it. Loping tracks of snowshoe hares were everywhere, and we occasionally crossed paths with tracks of deer looking for winter browse. Maybe the black bears of Vermont were hibernating, but all the other creatures were carrying on, even in the heart of winter.
At Morse Farm, snowshoes are for work as well as recreation. “We go out on snowshoes to put the taps in the trees,’’ Tom Morse told us. “Each year we have to drill a new hole in every tree. We start in mid-February because you never know when the weather will break and we have to be ready.’’ Sugaring season lasts about six weeks, which means that the sap stops running at about the same time that the snowshoe trails usually close for the season.
In preparation for sugaring season, Tom was busy at the sugarhouse installing a new reverse osmosis machine to speed the syrup-making process by removing about 10 percent of the water from the maple sap before it goes into the evaporator. Visitors are always welcome to stop in to take a look at some of Burr Morse’s wood carvings and to see the big evaporator that boils off steam to concentrate clear sap into sweet amber syrup. Like most people in Vermont, Tom has spent the winter hoping for snow. “Snow around the base of the tree keeps everything fresh,’’ he said, “but if it warms up in a real hurry it kills the season.’’ Weather dictates the sap flow, but even with eight generations of accumulated wisdom, he finds it hard to predict. “When we get freezing nights followed by thawing days we’ll be in operation,’’ he said.
Sap from the Morses’ trees flows through plastic tubing, which red squirrels attack because they crave the sweet liquid. And the sap looks like water when it first arrives at the sugarhouse. It gets sweeter and thicker as it evaporates. “It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup,’’ Tom told us. “When we’re up and running, people can even taste the syrup right off the evaporator.’’
In the gift shop above the ski touring center, visitors can taste all four grades of maple syrup from Fancy Grade, which is made at the beginning of the season and has the lightest color and most delicate flavor, to Grade C, which is the darkest syrup from the end of the season and is most often used for cooking (and more recently, for brewing beer) rather than as a table syrup. On weekend afternoons during sugar season, the Morses also offer the taffy-like sugar on snow, accompanied by a pickle, and a doughnut.
For those who prefer their syrup on pancakes, the best bet is the Wayside Restaurant & Bakery, a local institution that opened in 1918 five miles south of the farm. People waiting patiently to sit in one of the wooden booths often form a line that stretches out the door and into the parking lot. But local etiquette allows for cutting the line to grab any open seats at the 12-stool horseshoe counter, where everyone seems to know one another, but visiting flatlanders are welcome to join the conversation about the crazy weather. The Wayside serves breakfast all day and even has a contest to see who can eat the most pancakes in a three-month period. Topped with maple syrup from Morse Farm, they sure go down easy.
If you go...
Morse Farm Maple Sugarworks
1168 County Road
Daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
Maple creemees $1.57-$2.51, chili (weekends only) $4.35, sugar on snow with pickle, doughnut, and drink (“The Works’’) $5.45.
Morse Farm Ski Touring Center
1168 County Road
Trails open daily 8 a.m.- 4:30 p.m. Cross-country day pass adults $12, youth $8. Snowshoe day pass $8. Equipment rentals: skis adults/youth $14/$10; snowshoes adults/youth $13/$10.
Wayside Restaurant & Bakery
1873 Route 302, Berlin, Vt.
Opens daily at 6:30 a.m., last service 9:30 p.m. Pancakes $4.50-$8.95.