‘We’re all doing the same thing… just doing it a little differently

Photo by Robert Williams
Since winning the Vergas Maple Syrup contest four years ago, Stu Peterson has been the curator of the event winner’s trophy out at Camp Aquila. He is returning the trophy this year at the behest of organizer Sherri Hanson. Peterson jokingly told Hanson that thieves had broken into the sugar house and all they stole was the trophy. He is entering the contest this year and could ironically bring it back to the sugar house should his syrup be deemed the winner.

By Robert Williams


Stu and Corinne Peterson are the award-winning owners of Camp Aquila Maple Syrup produced on the Star Lake peninsula in Dent and Stu will be the main presenter at this year’s Maple Syrup Festival in Vergas on Saturday, April 13. 

Stu’s presentation, “Back to the Maple Basics” will be an interactive session that will be of interest to both experienced maple producers to novices and even those who simply prefer a sugary sensation for their stack of pancakes.

“I hope so,” Peterson said. 

Photo by Robert Williams
Stu Peterson brings a quarter century of maple syrup production knowledge to this year’s Vergas Maple Syrup Festival where he will be presenting at Summers Design Center at 10 a.m., on Saturday, April 13.

One topic for beginning producers, Peterson is bringing a portion of a presentation he created with the University of Minnesota Extension last year.

“A big one is getting the right density,” he said. “It’s a very narrow band between you make syrup and all of a sudden you’ve gone too far and now you’ve got the crystals. Filtering is another big frustration. There are so many ways to filter.”

Peterson’s goal of the presentation is to not be the only speaker with so many producers around the Vergas area in attendance. He is hoping to share the conversation with everyone.

“If it works the way I’d like it to, there will be lots of interaction and questions and I won’t be the only one with an answer,” he said.

While the Petersons operate with a state-of-the-art reverse osmosis enhanced gravity system in their sugar shack, one of the most interesting things about syrup production is that everyone has a different process.

“That’s part of my theme for this presentation,” he said. “We’re all doing the same thing. We’re producing sap down to syrup by boiling water but we’re all doing it a little differently. There’s isn’t necessarily a right or wrong but it’s all a function of what scale you’re working at.”

The Petersons began their operation small and with a little luck. Their home sits on a pristine, natural reserve of maples that formerly housed Camp Aquila for Boys on the Star Lake that opened after World War II and closed in 1976.

Both Stu and Corinne grew up with the Milburn family that ran the camp.

The Camp closed after what was considered a state-of-the-art sewage system in the 1950s that became obsolete and was no longer state compliant in the mid-70’s. It then sat idle for several years.

“From the stories I have heard, the killer was liability insurance,” Peterson said. “Rather than reinvesting he shut it down.”

Prior to that, the Peterson’s bought a lot across the lake and eventually returned that property as a down payment to purchase the camp land in 1983 from Doc and Norma Milburn. The Milburn’s wanted to sell to someone whose objective was to not cut it down and develop the land. 

“So far, I’ve lived up to his expectations,” Peterson said. 

For 20 years, the Petersons were weekenders as they still lived in St. Paul.

They removed a log cabin and a large building filled with sleeping quarters for campers, both seasonal, that predated the camp and replaced it with their home.

The Petersons had no experience with maple syrup and no plan other than to be good stewards of the incredible piece of property they owned.

Part of the sale with the Milburns was a selective cutting of the land to remove DNR-approved excess wood. A forest stewardship plan was also part of the deal. One of the findings from the plan was that the land had an excellent opportunity to be a sugarbush.

“I didn’t even know what the word meant,” Stu said.

In 2000, Stu accepted an early retirement from a career as a commercial lender to agri-businesses, largely to co-ops, dairy and sugar plants, and rural electric co-ops.

“This is an extension of what I did, but I’m on the other side of the table,” he said.

Early retirement provided Stu a first time to drill a hole and see what syrup production was all about. That began a trip down 25 years of he and Corinne self-teaching themselves into a successful business that was kickstarted by one of their neighbors.

“There was a neighbor a mile down the road, Gary Sheldon, who said, ‘This is a hoot! Tap some trees and bring your sap down and cook with me.’ That’s just what we did. We did 50 trees. For three years, I hauled down to his place to a little outdoor five-pan on cinder blocks and we’d cook way into the night. It took a 12-pack to cook a batch.”

Sheldon eventually became the first customer buying the first bottle produced under the Camp Aquila label in 2003.

In 2001, Stu traveled to St. Cloud to attend the North American International Maple Syrup Council to investigate how continuous flow evaporators worked.

It did not take long for Stu to get the itch to expand his own operation and the Petersons joined multiple maple-based associations.

“Three years later, I got the bug and we built our first sugar house,” he said.

He then became a board member of the Maple Syrup Council and kept up with workshops and attended conventions traveling to a different host site every year in Canada and the States seeing the latest in technology and equipment.

“That’s how we got self-educated,” he said.

The couple moved here permanently in 2005. Corinne retired from her nursing career. Stu continued to join the boards of trade organizations in the field and at home Camp Aquila was upgrading with a larger sugar shack, food-grade equipment, state certification and organic certification.

“And we were off to the races, by then, we were up to 500 trees,” he said.

Stu and Corinne are now up to working 1,200-1,300 trees—a unique choice for retirement.

“It’s just a different vocation,” Stu laughed.

The work is not always easy. This year, Stu employed the help of his 24-year-old nephew to get going in February.

“I’d still be drilling holes if it wasn’t for him,” Stu said.

In a quarter century of harvesting, the Petersons have seen quite a range of springtime environments. According to Stu, 2023 was the latest start to the season they’ve had with a first boil on April 18.

“It was insane for 10 days; I’ve never worked so hard,” he said. “And then it was over quick.”

By comparison, this year’s first boil was on February 25.

“We went from the latest start to the earliest start back-to-back,” he said.

The Peterson’s bottle year round and deliver to local stores like Ditterich Mercantile and Vergas 66, along with the two grocery stores in Perham, among others. The Petersons are also proud of a partnership they created with Josh Hanson at Spanky’s Stone Hearth.

Disgruntled Brewery in Perham and Swing Barrel Brewing in Moorhead have used Camp Aquila sap and syrup in their recipes to produce ales, stouts and beers.

Their syrup has won prestigious industry awards from the North American Maple Council, the Minnesota Maple Association Syrup Competition and a blue ribbon at Minnesota State Fair.

Camp Aquila was also the Maple Syrup contest winner at the Vergas festival four years ago.

Peterson’s Vergas Maple Syrup Festival presentation is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m., Saturday, April 13, at Summers Design Center.