Harvesting wild rice on the wilderness lakes of northern Minnesota nourishes my soul and spirit long before I sit down with family and friends to enjoy this tasty, nutritious native food.
The dream of harvesting wild rice first grabbed me while duck hunting on northern Minnesota’s Big Fork River. A buddy and I were motoring down the river looking for a place to hunt when we came upon a bed of ripe rice on the river’s bank.
A flock of mallards who were feasting on the rice flew off as we approached. “No wonder these northern mallards taste so good,” I thought. “They fatten on wild rice.” I found myself in a canoe on Leeman Lake many years later, 106 acres of shallow water in northeast Minnesota’s St. Louis County. That year, the lake was choked with wild rice, and I was there to get some.
Of course, I wasn’t surprised to see flock and after flock of mallards landing on the lake to join the feast. Deer, beaver, muskrat, and other wildlife also feast on this ancient grain.
What made that day on Leeman Lake even more magical was the sound of Ojibwe people (aka Chippewa) singing traditional ricing songs in their native tongue. It was an enchanting experience, one that has been taking place in this area for thousands of years among these, the people of the rice.
Edible ancient plants
Harvesting wild rice has deep roots in the Native American experience. For example, Minnesota’s big rice occupation site in the Superior National Forest has yielded evidence of ricing by native people since 50 B.C. Pollen evidence shows that wild rice has existed on this lake in harvestable quantities for 3,600 years.
Manoomin, as the Ojibwe call wild rice, has twice the protein and fiber of brown rice, according to a 2011 article by Ojibwe leader Winona LaDuke in the Indian Country Today newspaper. Wild rice, LaDuke wrote, “is the first solid food given to a baby (as mazaan, or broken rice), and it is one of the last foods served to elders as they pass into the spirit world.”
One early explorer in rice country wrote in 1820 that he witnessed native people trading a fawn skin stuffed with wild rice for two beaver skins, a good price for the time. So, when you rice, you’re participating in an ancient, beloved Native American tradition.
But dreaming of harvesting wild rice and doing it are two different things, I soon discovered. Lucky for me, I had a professional acquaintance who could show me the ropes. Anyone, however, can learn the secrets of harvesting wild rice using this method, and other sources in books and online can provide additional direction.
Finding rice ready to be harvested
The first thing that aspiring ricers need to do is find a good rice stand. You don’t want to line everything up only to find a lake with little or no rice, especially if you’re only ricing for a day, which is often all it takes.
I commonly get 15 to 20 pounds of finished rice in a good day’s ricing— enough for gifts and to last my family a season. The first essential lesson to learn about ricing is that if a lake had a good stand of wild rice last year, it doesn’t mean that it will have good rice this year.
A good rice stand means plants thick enough for a good harvest but thin enough to get a canoe through. A rice crop can be destroyed the day before you plan to arrive, for example, by large rains or high winds that knock the rice stalks into the lake or blow the rice from the seed head. Keep an eye on the weather.
One way to find a good rice lake is to just drive around to several lakes and have a look. There’s always somewhere that boasts good rice. Most states don’t have harvestable wild rice like Minnesota and Wisconsin, but you can always travel to a rice state. A little online work will show you the way and cost.
Last year, a day permit for ricing in Minnesota cost residents $15, or $25 for the season. Non-residents may only buy daily permits for $30. The Minnesota season usually runs from August 15 to September 30, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily.
Always check current regulations in your state for seasons, prices, and gear restrictions. Over 1,200 lakes and rivers in 54 northern Minnesota counties contain wild rice, with concentrations of rice being the highest in the counties of Aitkin, Cass, Crow Wing, Itasca, and St. Louis.
Tips for harvesting wild rice
1. I don’t know of pre-made flails or knockers for sale, so you get to make your own! Many Native American families have flails that are decades old.
An Ojibwe told me to use dead, dry white cedar for flails because it’s durable, lightweight, and water-resistant. I got several chucks from a friend’s land, split them with a hatchet to a workable width, about 2 inches, then used knives and a small plain to reduce them to size.
In Minnesota, flails must be smooth, under a pound in weight, and a maximum of 30 inches long. I checkered my handles for a little decoration and a better grip. Be sure to check all regulations, as they can change.
2.Spread your raw rice out somewhere safe from critters and the rain to dry for a couple of days before taking it to a finisher. In Minnesota, the state’s Department of Natural Resources provides a list of rice finishers. Pick out leaves and stalks before taking your rice to a finisher because some charge extra to do it themselves.
3.Wear gloves. Constant knocking or paddling for hours is hard on the hands. A hat and sunglasses also help keep the sun from wearing you out, as does sunscreen.
4. Paddling, especially for hours, is hard work in general. We had a third person one year to switch out, so the other person could get out of the canoe, stretch and rest.
5. Bring breathable bags and ties to unload your rice from the canoe and for easy transport. Wet rice left in a bag too long will spoil.
6. Like any natural resource these days, there are challenges that anyone interested in sustainability and being a good steward should know.
The Ojibwe, the folks who wrote the book on harvesting wild rice care and use, have fought and won legal battles to label domestically raised wild rice as “paddy grown” and to stop genetically engineered wild rice from being planted.
Wild ricing is a great family-and-friends activity. Ricing takes two people, a canoe and flails or sticks used to brush the ripened rice from the stalk’s seed heads. You also need a finisher to parch and de-husk your rice before it can be eaten or stored.
Finished rice, by the way, stores well for years. I’ve paid $1.25 to $2 per pound for finishing, and depending on quality (wild or cultivated, whole or broken grains), finished wild rice sells for $12 to $15 per pound.
If you get just a day’s permit, bring water and food to keep you going because you won’t want to stop until closing time. I look for the densest stands to harvest first. Only canoes without motors are allowed in Minnesota to harvest rice. This is to protect the rice stalks and ripe or green seed heads from being pushed over into the water.
Rice, which botanically is really a seed, ripens daily, so you can rice the same lake over multiple days or a few weeks. Ricing is a pair’s activity: One person paddles as the other flails the rice heads to knock the grain into the canoe. You don’t want to snap off seed heads or knock down entire plants by flailing too aggressively.
You can also use push poles, but I find paddles more useful and easier to use. You want a good pair of arms and shoulders paddling to keep the canoe moving at a slow but steady pace to maximize the harvest.
Paddling through thick rice for hours is hard work, but I love it when I’m in a good stand of rice, and the stuff is falling like rain, clacking its way to the canoe floor and piling up around your legs.
Anybody can flail or knock, but they must be fast, steady, and have a good aim to keep most of the rice falling into the canoe and not the water. But letting some rice fall into the water is being a good steward of this aquatic treasure as it ensures a good crop for every creature the next year.
Few activities in life provide the deep sense of satisfaction that comes from harvesting food with your own hands. To feed one’s self by one’s own hand is as primordial an act as you can experience. To live exclusively on food provided by others is to live a life less independent than it should be.
Conservationist Aldo Leopold said it best when he wrote in his land stewardship treatise A Sand County Almanac that “there are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.” I know a lot of you, as do I, live by this creed.
This article was provided by Jeff Markus Fogel.