Last year, it took gallons and gallons of gasoline for Paul Lesefske to monitor his maple sap gathering operation in groves 10 miles from his Gowanda spread.
Those 10 miles weren't as the crow flies. They were down into the Zoar Valley and up the other side, a 45-minute round trip that was "probably one of the worst drives around," Lesefske said. "You were always there once, twice, three times a day, 20 miles -- which adds up, especially with gas prices where they are."
This year, Lesefske stays home. He just flips open a laptop computer at his Maple Glen Sugar House to check the level of the 4,000-gallon sap tank. His new monitoring system, using data transmitted via orbiting satellite and the Internet, rings his cell phone when it's time to haul sap. "I've got all the bells and whistles, as they say," Lesefske said. "It's pretty cool."
This weekend and next, visitors will get a chance to check out just how cool it is, as Lesefske and about 110 other syrup makers host New York's Maple Weekend. Operators across the state will offer lessons on America's first sugar -- along with samples of syrup still warm from the boiler.
Details on locations participating in the event, Saturday and Sunday and March 26-27, are listed at mapleweekend.com. They include a passel of pancake breakfasts and demonstrations of historic sugar-making techniques now only glimpsed in Laura Ingalls Wilder novels, like boiling maple sap in a trough, brought to a simmer by dropping in blisteringly hot rocks from a campfire.
The maple business, one of the oldest enterprises in North America, still relies on collecting as much sap as possible during the spring run. But practitioners are embracing numerous technological advancements -- and marketing efforts like Maple Weekend -- to keep their maple dreams alive in the face of unpredictable weather and cheap, corn-based pancake syrup.
>Sap-boiled hot dogs
Lesefske's Maple Glen Sugar House (2266 Gowanda Zoar Road, Gowanda; 532-5483), which produces about 1,000 gallons of syrup a year, gets about 1,500 visitors for the event's two weekends, he said. They'll make about 35 percent of their year's sales during the two weekends, he said.
"We show them everything from start to finish," said Lesefske. "How we tap the maple trees -- that's a hands-on experience for the kids -- then we show them how we boil the maple sap." Through two big picture windows, visitors can watch maple candy, maple cream and maple peanuts being made, he said.
While lots of Maple Weekend sites offer similar activity menus, Lesefske's operation will offer a lesser-known sugarhouse culinary tradition: sap-boiled hot dogs.
"That's just been a standing tradition with maple producers in general," he said. "They'd throw hot dogs in the back flue pan and let them boil." They're best toward day's end, he said, as the water boils away and results in "a nice sweet hot dog glazed in maple syrup."
But if pancakes dripping with real maple syrup are part of your maple dream, Maple Weekend has no shortage of outlets; see the complete list on mapleweekend.com. Many are held in fire halls and other spaces, but at Moore's Maple Shack in Freedom (10397 Galen Hill Road, Freedom 14065; 492-3067), folks come for the maple tour and stay for all the pancakes they can eat.
"Yep, all-you-can-eat pancakes for $6, with syrup, of course," said Earl Moore, one of Maple Weekend's original organizers. "We make a thinner pancake, but they get however many they want." The deluxe breakfast -- pancakes, ham or sausage and two eggs, will set you back all of $7.50.
Moore's pancake restaurant, which seats about 60, stays open through parts of April, "while we're making syrup," he said. During the season, they'll welcome visitors by the busload, totaling perhaps 2,500 over the two weekends, Moore said.
"We generally start tapping Feb. 15 or so, and make syrup through April," he said. Last year was one of the worst sap runs in memory, but usually "we'd like to make 1,800 to 2,000 gallons a year," Moore said.
Their operation includes 3,000 of their own taps and four other sap collectors who bring Moore their yield. His boiler is oil-fired, and all the sap is collected by plastic tubing, which replaced the old-fashioned sap bucket system.
"It's just as much work to put the plastic tubing in the woods as it is to use buckets -- the work just comes at a different time of year," Moore said. In fall and winter they repair tubing, "so when the sap runs we can work on boiling it, and not be chasing buckets around in the woods."
That's better than the bucket era, when they'd spend days in the woods gathering buckets, and the nights boiling sap, he said. Carrying a five-gallon pail, workers would trudge through snow from tree to tree, emptying each tap's bucket into the big one. Then they'd make their way to where the horse-drawn sleigh waited, and empty the big bucket into the tank.
"When the barrel or tub got full, you took it back to the sugarhouse and dumped it, then you went out and did it again," said Moore. "It was a lot of work. But I was younger then, too."
These days, buckets are used in smaller operations, and a few in the Adirondacks, Moore said.
>Making 'jack wax'
But visitors to Beaver Meadow Audubon Center (1610 Welch Road, North Java;  457-3228) will have a chance to watch bucket tapping and other historical maple processing techniques as part of the center's Maple Festival, held this Saturday and Sunday.
It's $8 for adults ($6 for kids ages 3-12; 2 and under free), but all-you-can-eat pancakes are part of the included attractions, said Loren Smith, Audubon Society executive director.
Those include demonstrations of how maple sugaring occurred through time. "For example, Native Americans would heat rocks up in a fire and put them into a trough filled with sap, and it would boil off the water, leaving the syrup," said Smith.
That's on tap at the Audubon Center, along with sap boiling over an open fire, and with help from a wood stove. "It's small-scale, how it was done through history by Native Americans and early settlers -- small-scale batches for personal use."
If there's good snow, "We show how you can pour the hot syrup on the snow and have it crystallize in candy form," called "jack wax," Smith said. (It's traditionally eaten with a pickle, to clear your palate.)
"Maple syrup is essentially a product of nature -- it comes from the trees," said Smith. "We can connect people with the natural world by showing them this process, and we don't do it in isolation; we talk about the ecosystem the trees are part of, as homes to birds and others."
In recent years, about 800 people a day have attended the event, he said. "The educational component, we feel, adds another flavor to the weekend."