By Erin Post

When temperatures dipped below zero Tuesday night to usher in the first day of spring, local maple producers may have looked wistfully at their sugarhouses, imagining the time when the steam would start pumping and the syrup flowing.

So far this season, the weather just hasn't cooperated for a good sap run.

"It's been too warm or too cold," said Spike Vasseur, a maple producer in Fayston who said sap ran for a few days last week, only to be cut short by falling temperatures and the nor'easter that brought more snow over the weekend.

The same pattern held true for Easty Long, who managed to crank out a few hundred gallons of syrup in the brief thaw.

"The rest of the time it's been too cold," said the Fayston maple sugar maker.

Still, local maple enthusiasts are stoic; most have dealt with seasons that start late or early or proceed in fits and starts until the trees start to bud.

"It's all Mother Nature," said local maple producer Pat Livingston. "You need cold nights and warm days."

The consensus seems to be that the next few days may be busy ones for sugarhouses in Vermont. Temperatures are expected to rise into the 40s and 50s during the day, a welcome thaw that could start the season off a few weeks later than usual.

"They should be sugaring days," said Vasseur, who taps about 3,200 trees in Fayston and runs the sugaring operation with his brother, Bob, and other family members.

For most maple producers, preparation for the season began mid-February. In the days following the Valentine's Day blizzard, when many residents were still digging out their cars and homes, they strapped on snowshoes to set up taps and check on the miles of tubing that run from trees to sugarhouses.

Some operations use pumping systems to get sap to the sugarhouse, where it is boiled into syrup; others let gravity work its magic.

Long said the blizzard made this year "one of the hardest years we've had to tap," with the snow still so new that it didn't have time to settle before he headed out on snowshoes. He said he just finished last week getting his 6,000 trees ready for the season.

For Livingston, his set-up requires him to haul some tanks back to the sugarhouse once the sap starts to run, where he has been known to put in 30 straight hours of work during the height of the season.

"That's when we get some real good runs," he laughed.

Even though it's been a slow start, maple producers are optimistic that there's still time for those kinds of runs this year. It may be a different story if conditions are unchanged in another few weeks, when the chance for what Vasseur called a "warm-out" increases. This happens when temperatures go from cold to hot without a moderate thaw.

But there's no cause for alarm yet.

"We've had earlier seasons and seasons later than this," he said. "We're still all right."