For Cal Gilbertson, there’s no better time of year than early spring.
As the days get longer and the temperatures warm, the third-generation maple syrup producer eagerly anticipates the seasonal unfurling of new life in the bush that’s provided his family their livelihood for the last 86 years.
“The trees are starting to come back to life and they're giving you this sweet water, and to be able to take that and boil it and have something that's as delicious as maple syrup, that's appealing," said Gilbertson, president at Gilbertson’s Maple Products. “There’s just about nothing about it that I don’t like.”
A love of maple syrup comes naturally to Gilbertson, who grew up around the operation started by his grandparents, Bernt and Rose Gilbertson, in 1936.
As a young boy, Bernt had immigrated to Canada from Norway with his father, following the death of his mother. They settled on St. Joseph Island, southeast of Sault Ste. Marie, and eventually Bernt married Rose, with whom he raised a family.
The decision to one day try producing maple syrup was multi-faceted, according to his grandson.
“It's the time of year where they can't get in the bush and log because of the spring breakup, and it's too early to farm, so it's kind of a time of year when you just go and tap some trees and start carrying sap,” Gilbertson said.
“Plus, Norwegians love sweets.”
Before long, Bernt realized the commercial possibilities of producing the sugary nectar, and the operation continued to grow.
In 1967, the family built a small restaurant on the property, known as the Pancake House, which serves up pancakes, French toast, and a variety of other breakfast items, all topped with Gilbertson's trademark maple syrup.
The popular eatery, a stop at which has become a springtime tradition for many local families, got a contemporary rebuild in 2006.
When, in his 50s, Bernt entered provincial politics — he served as Algoma District's Member of Provincial Parliament between 1967 and 1975 — his son Don took over the business, working alongside his brothers, Rick and Greg, to keep it going.
Today, Don's sons, Cal and Brent, oversee the operation, which has become one of the largest in Ontario.
Forty thousand taps are set and more than 300 kilometres of line are strung across 500 acres, resulting in 12,000 gallons of maple syrup produced each year.
Most of that is sold in bulk in the U.S., Gilbertson said, although the business does sell its Maple Signature line of value-added products, like maple candy, sauces, and spice blends, in their farmgate store and via their website to customers across Canada.
“There's more of an online market than we're capturing, just because we don't have the people to do it,” Gilbertson said. “We do a bit of it, but we could do more.”
That's because demand for maple syrup is growing, as people look for sweetener alternatives to refined sugars, he said.
Gilbertson recalled that, as young as five years old, he knew he wanted to work in the family business.
Some of his favourite memories involve heading to the bush at the end of a school day, where he and his siblings would string line, can syrup, boil sap, or help with other tasks around the property.
The reward was his fill of pancakes, made by his grandmother at the Pancake House, which he happily munched on every day after getting off the school bus, all before dinner.
By the time he was 11 or 12, he began making his own syrup, with his father’s full blessing.
“I tapped 70 trees on my own and my dad gave me the buckets and old iron kettle, and I cooked it after school and finished it off on the weekends,” he recalled.
Today’s operation is much more sophisticated as traditional spiles and pails have given way to a plastic tubing system, while a process called reverse osmosis helps concentrate the sap for boiling.
“It reduces the boiling time it takes to boil the sap into syrup to get rid of the rest of the water,” Gilbertson explained. “We take, at a minimum, two-thirds of the water away before it’s boiled.”
Yet even the most modern technology can’t alleviate some of the business’s age-old challenges.
Gilbertson said it remains a struggle to find experienced workers who are willing to trudge through the bush for the labour-intensive work of setting lines and tapping trees.
Currently, five people are employed checking lines, and Gilbertson said he’ll bring on another 10 or 12 to tap the trees as the season nears. Most of his recruiting is done out of region.
“Right now, we’ll hire a group of Mennonites from down south,” he said. “We’ll house them up here for a week, and they’ll come up and do as much tapping as they can in a week and go home.”
Perhaps the business's craftiest adversary is also the one it can do little about: Mother Nature.
In the last five years, three major natural events have hit the bush, which have been “pretty devastating” to the operation.
In 2017, a severe windstorm uprooted several trees, and in 2020 it was a winter ice storm wreaking havoc through a chunk of forest. This past summer, another fierce wind ripped through the area, toppling more maples.
“They’re more than wind,” Gilbertson said. “They’re almost hurricane velocity, where it was either going to uproot the tree, or it was going to bust it off, and it did both.”
Since controlling the weather isn’t in the cards, Gilbertson said they simply call in a logging company to harvest the affected area and patiently wait for the forest to regenerate naturally.
As a new spring approaches, the family has decided, for the third consecutive year, to keep the Pancake House closed, in light of ongoing pandemic restrictions.
Gilbertson longs for a return to normal, with visitors gathering to enjoy some pancakes and maple syrup, and the next generation of the family training to eventually take over the helm.
But those coming after him shouldn’t hope to step into his shoes any time soon. There are still plenty of trees to tap and sap to boil before his time is done.
“I don’t even know what retirement is,” Gilbertson chuckled.
This article is one in a series focused on the rich histories, journeys and long-term successes of generational businesses in Northern Ontario.