What I Learned to Do: Harvest Wild Rice

{rice plants}

Wild rice is a plant unique to the Northwoods region  -- in the United States, it's mainly found in rivers and lakes in northern regions of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota. Historically, wild rice has held an important role in western Great Lakes Native American culture. The Ojibwe people call wild rice "manoomin," which translates to "good berry." Wild rice has long been a staple -- both nutritionally and spiritually -- to the Ojibwe and other Lake Superior region Native Americans. Because of its importance, local tribes are still very much involved in the wild rice harvest. On managed waterways, representatives of area tribes, referred to as "rice chiefs," work together with DNR staff to determine when the rice is ripe and thus when the season can open (this occurs on a case-by-case basis; all lakes don't open for the season at the same time). The wild rice season typically opens mid- to late-August and lasts for about three to five weeks.

Harvesting wild rice is a quiet activity -- if you're lucky, the only sounds you'll hear are the paddles hitting the water, rice stalks hitting the hull of your boat, ducks scurrying out of the way, and the gentle knocking of rice kernels onto the floor of your canoe. There are no motors, no heavy mechanized equipment. Just you, your partner, a boat, and your ricing sticks. 

Rice harvesting usually takes two people -- one person to navigate and paddle the boat, the other to take charge of actually gathering the ripe rice seeds. Gathering the rice requires primitive equipment -- only wooden "flail" or "knocking" sticks (typically made from cedar) are allowed; one is used to carefully bend the tall rice stalks over the boat; the other is used to gently "knock" the rice kernels into the canoe. The other key piece of equipment is a valid wild rice harvesting license. In Wisconsin, only state residents are permitted to harvest wild rice. The cost of a license is $8.25 per household.


D and I learned the process of gathering wild rice as part of a outdoor adventures series community course taught by Wil Losch and Rae Lundburg through Nicolet College. Our day began at 8:30a when we met the rest of the participants at the college campus. After quick introductions, we made our way via caravan to Big Lake in Three Lakes, which would be our rice harvesting location for the day. This particular lake had opened for the season to wild rice harvesters just two weeks prior to our class.

{wild rice open season}

Once we arrived, Rae and Wil gave us a crash course on the basics of harvesting wild rice. Rae showed us how to use the ricing sticks.

 {Rae demonstrating the knocking technique}

And Wil demonstrated how to use the long push-pole. (D and I opted to use paddles in our canoe.)

{Will explains how the long push-pole works}

Soon enough, we were in our canoe and pushed out into the lake. We soon discovered that we had missed the peak of the harvesting season -- much of the rice plants had already been picked over by earlier harvesters -- whether human or waterfowl. 

{long view of the rice plants}

D navigated the boat away from the boat launch and we found ourselves a patch of rice plants that were full of the dark ripened seeds. 

 {paddling man}

I went to work, using my newly learned skills to gently harvest the rice kernels and plop them into our boat. I think a lot more plopped back into the lake. Which really isn't a bad thing, as they'll hopefully grow to be a part of next year's wild rice harvest. Wil encouraged us to be greedy and harvest as much as possible -- the truth is, as hard as we might try to clear all the plants of their seeds, only about 10-15 percent of the total seeds are harvested by humans each year -- meaning there's plenty left for wildlife and natural reseeding.

{using the knocking/ricing sticks to harvest wild rice kernels}

After just a few hours' time of gathering rice, we didn't have all that much to show for it. Much of what landed in our boat were empty hulls, something Rae referred to as "ghost rice." In the end, we added our "haul" to the community bag of rice; after the rice is finished (which involves drying, parching, hulling/dancing, and winnowing) the plan is to divvy up the final product amongst all the class participants.

{our morning "haul"}

After our few hours of "hard" work, we were greeted with cups of warm cream of rice soup and a sweet wild rice dessert concoction to enjoy, all courtesy of Wil's wife. Both dishes were quite delicious. 

{enjoying a wild rice dessert after a morning on the lake}

One of the more interesting facts I learned about wild rice is that much of the "wild rice" you find for sale in grocery stores is actually cultivated rice that is grown in rice paddies. Signs that what you're purchasing may not be truly "wild" rice include a dark black color (naturally-grown wild rice tends to vary in color, from light brown to black) and a uniform shape (naturally-grown wild rice tends to come in a variety of sizes). Another sign is a low price. If the cost is less than $5/pound, there's a good chance it was not hand-harvested from the wild. Due to the intensive labor required to hand harvest and finish naturally-grown wild rice, it is typically much more expensive. 

In the end, though we may not have harvested much rice, we did get to enjoy an experience unique to the Northwoods, and we hope to use our newly-acquired skills to harvest wild rice on our own next year. 

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