On a brisk sunny afternoon, several mothers and their children carried galvanized buckets, drills and hammers into the woods surrounding Bear Branch Nature Center in Westminster.
They identified the tallest, hardiest maple trees, mostly by their silvery white bark, and set to work on the first phase of a process that could end with maple syrup.
"Mom, drill please," said Victoria Dinisa, 9, of Littlestown, Pa. "I need to make a big hole."
Actually, Victoria only needed to twist and turn the hand drill, called a brace and bit, long enough to place a 2-inch hole in the thick bark. Then she tried to hammer a small funnel, known as a spile, into the hole.
"I'll hammer," said her 7-year-old brother, Gabriel.
"Watch your fingers!" shouted Stephanie Dinisa, the mother of four children engaged in the tree tapping.
Victoria was not satisfied until her spile fit snuggly into the tree. "It can't jiggle," she said. A successful tap will allow sap to flow through the spile into a bucket hooked onto the tree.
While the Dinisa family was still drilling and hammering, Katie Garst, 11, yelled, "Our tree is dripping already."
Before moving on to another tap, the children covered their buckets with a metal lid - to deter bears and squirrels, they said. More likely, the lids would keep out rain, insects and critters, said Tina Shupp, a Bear Branch naturalist. Bear sightings are rare in Carroll County, she told the group, although squirrels abound.
Before heading into the woods, Shupp gave the group some hints on how to get the most out of its taps.
"It is hard work for us but probably was harder 200 years ago," Katie said.
Tapping works best on aged trees with a circumference of at least 41 inches. The tree the Dinisas selected was large enough for two tappings. It takes about 40 buckets of boiled-down sap to make one bucket of maple syrup.
Katie has three more years of tapping experience than her 7-year-old brother, Eli. She dressed in period costume for the occasion and pronounced this year the warmest season so far.
"I am outfitted like the old days," she said, modeling a white bonnet, long skirt and shawl.
Eli's youth and small stature made drilling somewhat difficult, so he enlisted help from his mother, Barb.
"What if I had to do all these trees myself?" he said.
Lindsey Binkley, 9, who had recently finished a book about maple syrup, shared her knowledge.
"This is what they did in the 1800s," she said. "I read a book about collecting maple sap, and I decided to see how it actually happened."
Her sister Amber, 11, read the same novel and added, "The book was so much fun that this will be a fun afternoon. We will probably get enough sap to make syrup for pancakes."
Not in one afternoon, Shupp said. Amber reported hearing pinging in her bucket, and she took a tiny taste but found little flavor in the clear liquid.
The custom of gathering sap from maples originated with Native Americans, who would throw a tomahawk into a tree and collect the sap in a hollowed-out log.
"They had no metal or glass to boil sap, so they heated the log," Shupp said. "The pioneers brought iron kettles and metal spiles. Now there are large production operations with piping."
The nature center organized several tree tappings this month in preparation for the county's annual Maple Sugarin' Festival. Each group taps several large trees and returns a week later to collect sap.
"We learn how and why we tap trees and all about the boiling-down process," Shupp said. "We have had a weird winter, though, and even the trees are confused with the weather."
Ideally for sap to run, trees need cold nights and slightly warmer daytime temperatures, she said. Maryland, with typically cold winters and a defined spring, is right on the border for productive maples, said Shupp.
"Vermont would be better," said Katie.
Vermont leads the nation in maple-syrup production with nearly 500,000 gallons annually, according to the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers' Association.
When they returned to Bear Branch last week, the Garsts and Dinisas discovered bucketsful of sap.
"This was the best year ever, with more sap than we have ever collected before," said Barb Garst. "We all found full and heavy buckets on our trees and carried them back to a large barrel. With this warm weather we are having, the sap is running fast."
Stephanie Dinisa, who home-schools her children, found the activity to be "a real hands-on learning experience."
"This was a great activity that turned light bulbs on in the children's heads," she said. "We plan on doing it again next year."
Shupp has organized at least three groups of tree tappers and has found all the trees running sap.
"The kids get so excited when they come back and see their buckets full of sap," she said.
The excursion ended with dishes of ice cream topped with thick maple syrup.
The Maple Sugarin' Festival opens with a pancake brunch, complete with lots of syrup. Throughout the day, volunteers will boil down sap in a large iron kettle and offer samples of syrup and maple candy. Displays and demonstrations will offer views of Native American culture and tools. A blacksmith will show off his craft.
"We always go to the festival," said Barb Garst. "The kids love to watch the kettle cooking sap and to taste the different grades of maple syrup."
The festival is from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. March 5 at Hashawha Environmental Center, 300 John Owings Road, Westminster. Admission is $2 per vehicle. Information: 410-848-2517.