Every spring, the wilderness beckons to Mur Gilman and Donna Palivec.
It’s no different this year. Operating among a cozy collection of trees between Movil Lake and Turtle Lake just north of Bemidji, the two toil away at their annual labor of love: maple syruping.
“It’s kind of like a half-time job in the spring,” Gilman says. “I like to be in the woods.”
Gilman and Palivec, professors emeritae at Bemidji State University, spend hours a day on their property tapping trees and collecting sap to convert into maple syrup.
“This is of the land,” Palivec says. “Anytime we can take something this natural and make it into something usable that we really enjoy, you feel really good about it.”
And, on rare occasions like this afternoon in early April, they share the experience with BSU students.
“This is pretty environmental,” Gilman says. “It’s kind of back-to-the-earth stuff. I want students to know about that. Maple syruping is having a resurgence. A lot of people are doing it now, and I think that’s great.”
Trekking up the inclined driveway, nine Bemidji State students arrive for a field trip with their “People of the Environment” class. Alongside them is Sherry Holloway, a professor of human performance, sport and health at BSU – and a former pupil of Gilman’s.
“I try in all of my classes to get students out into our community,” Holloway says. “We can teach all we want by standing in front of a class, but once they get hands-on experience and see things and meet people in the community, that’s what makes their experiences at BSU that much richer.”
Palivec is absent on this day, but no matter to Gilman. She takes the reins and dives into all things maple syrup, from data and numbers to the actual process that begins with tree sap and ends with syrup on pancakes. Some of the students have syruping experience, but most arrive as curious newcomers.
The late arrival of spring has affected the trees. Sap isn’t running yet. But undeterred, Gilman escorts the class over to a maple and demonstrates how to tap it.
From there, bags will hold the sap until Gilman and Palivec come around to collect it. They bring the sap to their “Sugar Shack” to filter and then boil it. Once enough water has evaporated from the sap, they’re left with pure maple syrup.
“You’re ending up with a really good product,” Gilman says.
Sap won’t run for another few weeks. The conditions have to be just right – below freezing overnight and above freezing during the day – in order to cause a pressure difference in the tree that makes the sap run. But the students still depart the field trip with exposure to a new craft and even a sweet taste of the finished product. And for Holloway, there’s still nothing better than simply seeing Gilman in action.
“She’s amazing. She’s so detailed,” Holloway says. “I feel like I’m one of her students back in the day, sitting in front of her exercise science class. … It’s full circle for me.”
'I got hooked really fast'
Two weeks later, the conditions are right.
Just days before the skies heap another ambush of snow on Bemidji, Palivec roams along the dirt trails and dumps the sap from bulging bags into five-gallon buckets. She hauls the buckets by hand from tree to tree and ultimately back to the Sugar Shack. It’s therapeutic.
That was never more apparent than during the height of the pandemic, when syruping in the great outdoors provided respite from the doom and gloom of COVID-19.
“You could go out and exercise and enjoy being outside versus listening to everything about COVID that was going on,” Palivec says. “The isolation more than anything, that’s how it saved me.”
This well-oiled operation has Bob Montebello to thank. Montebello – BSU baseball’s head coach from 1959-87 and a professor emeritus at Bemidji State – invited Gilman to go syruping with him in the 1990s.
“I got hooked really fast,” Gilman says.
It’s been an annual endeavor since 2013 for Gilman, while Palivec has been on board every year since about 2016. They purchased their land off Movil Lake soon after, and this spring marks their fifth out here.
Montebello now has his own section of maples on Gilman and Palivec’s property, affectionately called Bob’s Trees. There’s also the Golden Tree, which always produces exceptionally well, and the Lake Tree, which houses a big puddle at its base whenever there’s moisture.
“We both enjoy the outdoors, even if we’re collecting in snowshoes or muck boots because it’s muddy,” Palivec says.
“I beg to differ,” Gilman interjects playfully. “It’s no fun to collect in snowshoes.”
A sweet gig
This year, the tandem has tapped about 130 trees. They’ve surpassed 150 collected gallons of sap by the end of the day, a number that continues to rise. (In years past, they’ve collected as many as 900 gallons.) They average three to four hours a day up here, sometimes with guests and sometimes in solitude.
“I come every day,” Gilman says. “Once the sap starts to run and the trees are tapped, I have to come. … There are times when I go home, and I’m beat. I put my feet up and I’m out.”
“When you count the number of maples that are just on this small acreage, it’s pretty amazing,” Palivec adds. “Having friends out to collect some, and to tell them what it is we’re doing, is really rewarding.”
The season is relatively short, spanning roughly from mid-March to late April. Even so, there’s plenty of syrup to go around.
Palivec drizzles some on her cereal every morning and even infuses it into foods like banana bread. Her closet is stocked higher with syrup than with clothes. They have more than they could ever need for themselves, but that’s a good thing.
“A lot of people ask if we sell our syrup,” Palivec says. “We just enjoy giving it away to friends. The syrup means something to people because they’ll enjoy it. And the joy of giving a treasure like that to people, it means something to us.”
The two haven’t slowed down since their active Bemidji State days. Which is precisely how they like it.
“I think I was a pretty good teacher,” Gilman says, “but I think I’m really good at retirement.”