Engulfed in a cloud of wood smoke, several dozen people stand in the snow watching a pot boil.

"But I don't smell the syrup", complains a woman.

"You will," park ranger Frank Ryan promises her. Ryan is presiding over an annual rite of spring in these parts - the "sugaring off" or maple syrup boil at Cunnigham Falls State Park near Thurmont, Md.

The sap, 20 gallons of it, has been boiling in a cast-iron pot set on a wood fire for about two hours. Randy Dull, a state conservation agent, stokes the fire with a twisted stick and continually adds logs. Ryan ladles up some sap and shows the group that it's still a clear liquid. After about six hours of boiling and third of a cord of firewood, it will be dark, thick and delicious. But there won't be much of it: Twenty gallons of sap yields about half a gallon of maple syrup.

"At theend of the day, you'll agree that $3.50 a pint is a steal," says Ryan, gesturing up the hill toward a sales counter run by the Catoctin Mountain Tourist Council. "The process you see is the only way to get pure maple syrup. Most commercial pancake syrup is only about 2 percent maple syrup."

While the sap boils down, Ryan regales. The crowds with facts and legends about maple syrup. Though there were maple trees in Europe, the Europeans learned about the sweet syrup from the American Indians. he says. Ryan has several versions of how the Indians discovered it, but in each the heroine is a squaw.

"This squaw was cleaning hides, or whatever squaws did. It was the first break in the winter weather, and the kids were anxious to get outside to burn off all their lacrosse in the teepee," recounts Ryan.

The squaw, in a disciplinary move, breaks a branch off a maple tree an d applies it to "the seat of learning," says Ryan. "Then she gets back to work - waiting for soap operas to be invented. She's thinking about going down to the stream to draw some what to cook dinner when she sees a puddle of water beneath the place where she broke off the maple branch. that was a lot easier to get than to break through the ice in the stream, so she uses this water to cook the haunch of vension. When the warrior finally came home to dinner late that night, he thinks the 'water' has really improved the taste of that venison."

When newcomers arrive, Ryan invites them to sample some sap out of a bucket. The other onlookers smile, because they're in on the joke. The newcomer ruefully admits that the sap tastes just like water. The others guffaw, and Ryan tells them that the sap is 98 percent water with 2 percent minerals salts, tanin and sugar.

The rangers have been collecting sap all week, and several trees are hung with wooden buckets. To show the visitors how it's done, Ryan taps another tree.

"I'm not sure this old tool will put a cut in the tree, but it looks better than a new one," he says as he begins to bore a small hole into the sunny side because that's where the sap starts to rise first, he explains. The sap is stored in the tree's roots all winter and expands durinf the first days of spring.

Into the cut, Ryan inserts a spile, a wedge-shaped metal tube with a hook to hang a bucket on. The pioneers, he explains, used a hollowed-out sumac branch as a spile. "A tree should be at least 10 inches in diameter to be tapped," he says. "Done properly, tapping won't hurt the tree. It's like donating blood."

After each spring's tapping, you have to plug up the hole, warns Ryan. If you don't the insects will get into the hole to get the sap and woodpeckers will make the hole bigger to get the insects and eventually the tree will rot. One sugar maple tree yields about 40 gallons of sap - or about one gallon of syrup - each year. Other varieties of maples can be tapped, but the sugar content of their sap is lower, according to Ryan.

Kids chase each other through the snow, and families pull out picnic hampers. Some spectators munch hot dogs sold by a local civic group. All are getting a little impatient for the syrup.

The liquid has shrunk in the pot and is taking on a rich amber color. Ryan ladles some out, and the crowd watches the slightly thickened droplets fall from the ladle. "What do you say, brother?" he asks Dull.

"One more minute. Let's count out one minute," answers Dull.

Everyone starts to count, but Ryans is nervous. If you wait too long, the syrup wil burn. "Let's take it now," he says. "Let's not wreck the rice."

The two lift the heavy pot off the fire and quickly strain it through cheesecloth into a pot. Then they spoon it into little cups and pass it to the spectators.

"Where are the pancakes?" asks a man.

There are none, so people just sip the dark, sweet syrup. Kids improvise snow-cones. One women fills her thermos with sap, planning to try syrup-making on her own. Ryan predicts she'll produce about a drop of it.