Woodstock, Vt. — We awoke in the morning to discover that clouds had passed silently overhead in the night, adding an inch or so of the lightest powder to the now sunlit landscape. It turned this already attractive town into a place of quite stunning beauty. In my experience, only Arosa, high in the Swiss Alps, was its equal on this particular morning.
We had come to Woodstock - to be exact, the Woodstock Inn - for two days of get-away-from-it-all relaxation, of reading, dining in pleasant little eateries, snowshoeing through the woods, and of watching sugar maple sap boiling into syrup. Particularly that. It was the second week in March and sugaring off, as it's referred to wherever sugar maples are plentiful, was in full, steaming swing.
It happened that 1981 turned out to be one of the best sugaring years in living memory. For reasons not fully understood, the sap had a higher sugar content than usual. It was also flowing more readily than in previous years. But high sugar or not, this uniquely North American practice becomes an annual drawing card for visitors to the northern woods.
People are drawn to sugaring for several reasons. One is its link to Indian times (the Iroquois are thought to have discovered the sweetness locked within the maple tree) and the pioneer past that most of us admire but are glad we didn't have to experience. Another is the fact that, more than anything else, sugaring heralds the end of winter. And there's always that special taste treat when boiling syrup is poured over fresh snow so that it congeals into a taffylike consistency. Inevitably, too, sugaring operations take place in some of the nation's more scenic countryside.
Woodstock (not to be confused with the New York Woodstock of rock-festival fame) fits the pattern perfectly. When The National Geographic magazine described it as one of the five most desirable towns in the United States in which to live, it referred both to the town itself and the pristine beauty of its undulating surroundings. The National Trust lists it among the top ''five most architecturally beautiful villages in the United States.'' Inevitably visiting writers say what previous writers said before them: that the town belongs on a Currier and Ives post card or a Norman Rockwell print. The statement is old hat, in other words, but it is so apt that it bears repeating.
Remarkably, Woodstock has largely scorned the expansive changes that have marked (some say scarred) most other towns in this century. Here new construction has merely replaced older buildings so that Woodstock's resident population has remained constant at around 2,600 for the better part of 200 years. New design is also such that the architectural integrity of the town remains intact. The current Woodstock Inn is a perfect example.
The inn looks as if it has stood in place since Colonial times, and many visitors assume it has. But residents of the town know better. They watched its construction from the ground up back in 1969. But it was, in fact, merely continuing a Woodstock tradition. Classic New England inns have stood on that site for some 200 years. For us, the new-old inn, with its cheerily blazing log fire, provided the perfect base for everything we wished to do - including visiting a sugaring operation.
Our interest in sugaring was heightened on this particular visit because friends of ours had bought a piece of land in the heart of Maine's maple-syrup country. There was evidence of some ''sugar bush'' there, as the sugar maples are frequently referred to. Maybe the day would come when we'd help out in a little do-it-yourself sugar operation.
But why choose Woodstock to look at a sap-boiling operation? Well, for all the good reasons listed above. Plus, I'd also met John Wiggin, resident forester there, who suggested I come. The inn has its own sugar house, he said, and he'd be happy to show it to me as he frequently does to many visitors.
The Woodstock Inn runs an efficient but primitive sugaring operation. In other words the folks there make syrup the old-fashioned way, with wood heat. Theirs, in fact, is typical of the small, family-owned sugar operations that dot the New England countryside.
Some 300 taps produce enough clear sap to produce around 125 gallons of syrup in an average season. This wasn't an average season, and with several weeks still to go, more than 170 gallons of syrup had been filtered and hot-packed.
You learn some interesting facts at an operation like this: A tree must be 10 inches in diameter before you make one tap (hang a bucket is how the industry terms it) and 15 to 16 inches before you hang the second. But, says Mr. Wiggin, referring to some 300-year-old sugar maples on the inn's property: ''We have some seven-bucket trees.''
It takes the spring thaw and warm days and cold nights to get the sap running. In most northern areas this means that the sugar season lasts through March and much of April. Sugaring stops as soon as the buds break out. Sap taken after that results in a somewhat bitter-tasting syrup.
Fancy-grade syrup is the light golden kind (sweet New England sunshine, they call it around here) resulting from sap taken at the beginning of the season. A and B grades are darker, more flavorful syrups that come later in the season. All grades have exactly the same sugar content (67 percent) and consistency.
Maple syrup, by the way, will last for about a year in a sealed can. Once you break the seal, store it in the refrigerator. If any of it crystallizes, simply warming it in hot water will quickly remedy the situation. If mold ever forms on the top of the syrup, warm it up and skim off the top. The rest will be as good as new.
Put another way, while you learn some interesting facts during your visit to a steaming sugar house, you can also get some very practical advice as well.