Maple Tree Tapping at the Wayzata Big Woods

A group of dedicated volunteers met on Saturday March 19th at the Wayzata Big Woods for the 2nd annual Maple Tree Tapping event. You can view over 500 photographs in the “Wayzata Big Woods Maple Tree Tapping” gallery.

Tapping a maple tree in the Wayzata Big Woods.
Photo by Dan Gustafson. View 500+ more here.

Additionally, here is a write-up on the History of the Wayzata area, why the Big Woods are important, and maple tree tapping info from Merrily Babcock. Babcock led the event for the second year in a row.


As pioneers moved west many large tracts of woods were replaced with farms and small settlements. Minnesota territory, soon to become part of this great western migration was, until the mid 1850s, inhabited by the Dakota (Sioux*) Mdewakanton. These American natives felt the wooded area around the “big water” was a spiritual place. Between 1650 and 1861, after spending June to August on the western prairie hunting buffalo, they would journey East to this location each fall to hunt deer, elk and bear, gather cranberries, wild plums, swamp potatoes, nuts and herbs for winter. The downed trees were used for firewood and the crowded saplings were thinned and used for tepee poles. Chief Shakopee* had a band of around 200 people who camped each winter on Carpenter’s Point, the area where Bushaway Rd. meets the causeway. Harvesting wild rice in the fall from the shallow shoreline and fishing from ice holes in their sacred waters known as mi-ni-tan-ka, providing more winter provisions.

In 1851, the Treaty of Traverse de Sioux was signed and the land west of the Mississippi was opened to people traveling in covered wagons seeking new opportunities. The Dakota were forced to move and a small group of white Eastern families followed the dirt road west from St. Anthony to Wayzata. Soon new homesteads were constructed which increased the number of dwellings beyond the few scattered shanties built by the early trailblazers who had settled here.

Life would present many challenges for those early emigrants. After the white establishment called Waziah was settled in 1853 the cold spring was just the start of desperate years ahead. The first difficulty was the short growing season, leaving few provisions for the new arrivals. That was followed by the next three summers where clouds of locusts invaded and ate everything in sight. Not only were the crops devoured and trees and bushes left leafless, but also the clothes hanging out to dry were consumed. With crop failure, everyone was scraping by on borrowed money and numerous businesses failed. The financial panic forced many people to pack their belongings and move back East as banks called in their loans. The winter of 1857-58 was bitterly cold (-40 F). Those that were able to survive this dark time were soon generating income gathering a wild tuber root called Ginseng, which only grew on the dense humus floor of the Big Woods. Two Eastern brothers solicited this commodity for China and gave the struggling farmers a windfall until the entire wild crop had been dug and carted away (1857-1861).

Life proved difficult for the Native Americans also. With hunger and anger at broken treaty promises, and white men off fighting the Civil War the Indian Uprising of 1862 frightened many of the remaining families back East, never to return. Had it not been for the crude ox-cart road hacked out by Oscar Garrison and 160 acres of free land for homesteaders the town would “have all but died of anemia”*. In 1900 there were just 300 people, many being seduced to the lake in 1867 by the single train trip per day. The population doubled in 1920 to 633 and then 1,101 ten years later. Much of that growth can be attributed to the natural beauty of Wayzata’s location, excursion boats servicing the many hotels, the boat building industry and the summer homes built by prominent Minneapolis businessmen.


THE WOODS: This public park is a remnant of a deciduous hardwood forest that once covered most of the Eastern United States. Description of this forest name was a term used by early French explorers, bois fort or bois grand, which in English translates to “big woods”. In 1850, the footprint of this forest covered 6,500 square miles of Minnesota and stretched from St. Cloud to Mankato and West from Northfield to the Minnesota River. Early townships were surveyed using “bearing” trees. The DNR estimates that only about .01% of the original forest exists today. This loss is due to farming and housing and not natural causes as this type of forest is self-protecting. With few small shrubs, thick tree bark on the tall trunks and a damp decaying carpet of leaves, there is little to keep a fire fueled.

Most trees in this woods are sugar maple 110 to 120 years old with basswood, ironwood and oak in smaller numbers throughout. One 200-year-old maple still stands on the Retreat’s lawn. Canopy gaps are densely stocked with young maples and the rich forest floor has a light cover of wildflowers that can be seen in May when the grazing deer population is light. The most dominant flower is the Jack-in-the-Pulpit with Anemone, Meadow Rue, Nodding Trillium and False Solomon’s Seal scattered over the knoll and Bloodroot, ferns, Violets, Mertensia and White Trout Lily on the northern portion. Garlic Mustard and a heavy cover of buckthorn are competing with the native flowers but we are attempting to eradicate these invasive non-native species.

THE BUILDING: In 1933 the architectural firm of Stebbin, Hazby and Bissel of Minneapolis, MN designed the Tudor styled home that Charles and Ruth Arnao built in 1934. The estate was named Greenridges and stayed in the family until 1956 when the Arnao’s sold 11+ acres and donated 10 more to the Sisters of the Cenacle Order. The sisters added the two wings for bedrooms off the main house and a chapel to the North. In the woods north of the Cenacle, lore has it that the sisters mapped out the Twelve Stations of the Cross.

In 2003 Wayzata residents, with generous donations of area citizens and The Retreat, purchased the estate with the assistance of the Trust for Public Land. A Conservation Easement protects the entire 22+ acres from ever being developed and is held in perpetuity by the MN Land Trust.

Whether viewing this old growth forest from the walking paths, the rushing highway or the busy Colonial Square parking lot to the west the changing seasons add to our quality of life. Filtering pollutants and exhaust, the cleansing capabilities of the tree roots insure clearer water for Lake Minnetonka and Gleason Lake, with the tree’s enormous leaf canopy keeping our air cleaner…all highly valued assets for our community.


Maple tree tapping is an early spring activity in the northern United States and Canada and the indigenous natives have used the cooked sap as sweetener for generations. In the early 1850s they shared this art with the new settlers. The “sugarbush” season usually began in March-maples trees tapped the majority of time because of their high sugar content then birch, oak and boxelder were selected, the boiled sap giving winter food a savory flavor for these early people. The Dakota used birch bark containers to gather the sap and added hot stones to the liquid to reduce the sap to a syrupy blend.

A specific climate is required for tree tapping. The season usually lasts from 4 to 6 weeks and begins when the temperatures are below freezing at night and above freezing during the day. The fluctuation of temperature creates the pressure for the sap to rise. Mature 40-50 year old Maples are the most frequently tapped, the diameter no less than 12 inches. Taps are placed on the trunk’s south side, 3-4 feet above a large root. Each tap (spile) can produce 10-20 gallons per tree, depending on the weather conditions. Sap should be collected every 2 or 3 days but the amount gathered depends on Mother Nature. All sap stored should be kept cool prior to cooking/reduction. When the sap turns cloudy or the buds form on the branches, the season is over. Ten gallons of sap will make one quart of syrup and should always be cooked outside, as the steam is so thick that it will remove wallpaper.

For more information:


  • “Tap My Trees”
  • Cornell Sugar Maple Research
  • Making Maple Syrup: Univ. of Cincinnati
  • Homemade Maple Syrup, Minnesota Maple Series

• “Backyard Sugarin’” by Rink Mann

• “Once Upon a Lake” by Thelma Jones
(can be found at the Bookcase in Wayzata)

Pg. 116 “Once Upon a Lake” by Thelma Jones
*Dakota, meaning ally, in the Dakota language
*Sioux meaning little snakes


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