Suddenly it’s fall. The end of summer for us was absorbed in putting on the show Nature at Hidden Valley (link to Ely Nordic, https://www.elynordic.org/chalet)near Ely with Tiger Lion Arts (link – http://www.tigerlion.org). It was an amazing outdoor theatrical event that is still providing us with pride-inspiring compliments from those who attended. Clouds were sprinkling rain as the crew arrived on August 20th to set up the scenery for this outdoor walking play, but they moved out quickly to provide perfect late summer weather for the entire run of the play. As the crew departed at 9:30 pm August 25th, the rain started again and has barely stopped since. With it came daytime high temperatures in the 50s, golden and red leaves, and the ripening of the wild rice.
The rain has let up enough to get in three days of rice harvesting. It’s difficult to put in words how much fun this is. Any factual description makes it sound torturous: prickly rice awls invading every bit of your body, rice spiders making webs around you as lady bugs crawl up your pant legs, aching arms from paddling through thick stands of vegetation or repeatedly reaching for and tapping the rice stalks to knock kernels into the canoe. But there is delight in the sound of the kernels hitting the canoe, making me think of the delicious meals to come and the gifts I can give to friends and family. There is the satisfaction of providing nutritious organic food for the year to come. The water and woods glow in autumn sunshine, with a few dark clouds to provide a contrasting backdrop. Ducks pop up, flocks of blackbirds are startled by our quiet approach, and Vs of geese fly high overhead. Yesterday for the first time ever, we heard a frog-like sound that mystified us until we looked up to see a flock of sandhill cranes flying above us.
The kernels on each stalk ripen at different times, so we return to the same places day after day. Regulations allow harvesting only between the hours of 9 am and 3 pm, to allow the rice to ripen undisturbed. We are always happy to quit, paddling back to the landing with a heavier canoe than when we left in the morning. Later we spread the rice out on a tarp in our cabin, lighting a fire in the wood stove to help it dry and take away the chill of the autumn evening. The spiders—tiny delicate beings—take up residence in the corners of the ceiling. They must have a short lifespan as I’ve never noticed them more than a week after the season is over.
We have occasionally processed our own rice—parching it over a campfire, threshing it to remove the prickly awls and husks, and winnowing it in a wind. But usually we take it to a professional. This year it will go to Jim Merhar, a man as interesting as a museum. His operation is small by industrial standards, but it allows us to get our own rice back rather than have it mixed in with others. That’s important to us as we choose our ricing spots for the long-grained flavorful kernels, and we like having our food connected to the land that is practically our backyard.
The season ends suddenly when a big storm strips the remaining rice from the stalks, or gradually as humans and waterfowl consume the precious grains and the plants drop the rest of their bounty into the water to provide a harvest for another year. Fall is fully here now. The first frost is soon to come. Indian summer will give us more days to enjoy canoe trips and hiking trails. Hunting and fishing provide more food. Ely is quieter—rarely a wait for a table at any restaurant—but still lively with visitors who relish the colorful forests, cool days, and bug-free nights. For me, it’s time to focus on putting together the Ely Winter Times (link and small photo) and sending out the Boundary Waters & Quetico Calendar (link and small photo) to our customers. And one last canoe trip before winter…