Photo courtesy of LynnAnne Vesper, canoe and dogsled guide as well as ricing instructor for the Ely Folk School.
When Johnnie first began ricing, she and her husband were on the same lake as Mooney and Mooney’s husband, Joe. Johnnie recalls being in awe of Mooney, who looked so relaxed and barely seemed to put any effort into it, but was getting three times as much rice.
“On those first days,” Johnnie recalls, “my forearms felt like they would fall off, the little rice spiders were making webs in my hair, and the bugs and worms were tickling me. Not to mention how the awls worked their way into every crevice, getting lost in my clothes. Every grain of that rice was precious!”
Mooney remembers the way Johnnie reacted to the sight of her and Joe, out on the water. They certainly had a rhythm. Joe was the paddler, Mooney was the picker. They took home several hundred-pound sacks of wild rice each season. It’s no wonder she made it appear effortless; she spent fifty years of her life harvesting.
Wild rice is ingrained in Mooney’s family. As a little girl she learned ricing from her grandmother, who was regularly sighted picking on the Burntside River where it let out into Shagawa. “That was before anyone even knew what wild rice was,” Mooney told me.
Mooney’s mom used to go to Finn Hill and trade wild rice for cream and cheese. Popped wild rice served with cream and honey makes an excellent breakfast. Or you prepare the popped grain with butter and salt, in the same way one might serve popcorn (popped corn) — a family favorite to this day.
If she’s cooking for one Mooney often mixes ⅓ cup wild rice with bacon, butter, salt, and pepper. When she is hosting and wants to get fancy, she makes a casserole with italian sausage, celery, onions, mushrooms, a can of cream of mushroom soup, some whipping cream, slivered almonds, and — of course — wild rice.
“I really miss it,” Mooney reflects back on her decades on the water. I can hear the nostalgic longing in her voice. Although her ricing days may be over, she still celebrates the many gifts the wild rice gave her family over the years. The money she made with her ricing talents helped her kids through school, through unexpected hiccups. It fed her family, providing nourishment in so many ways.
“It was fun, to be out in the woods, to be outside.”
“Give me a call sometime,” Mooney says to me. “You can stop by and I’ll give you a bag of rice.”
A few years ago Johnnie was ricing with some beginners, and they expressed to her the same sentiment she had expressed to Mooney: “You make it look so easy, and you’re getting so much more rice than we are. What’s your secret?”
“The secret is many years of harvesting,” Johnnie said.
“It’s the deep enjoyment of being on a lake at such a beautiful time of year, seeing the geese flying over in big Vs, and the swans sharing the rice with us. The rhythm of working with another person in a way that fits together effortlessly after years of doing it. The yellow aspen and red maple, the chill in the mornings and warmth of the afternoons. Pulling into shore with a canoe-load of rice, and anticipating the many delicious meals to be eaten and enthusiastically-received gifts to give. Being part of a tradition long practiced on this land. Today, every grain is still precious,” she adds. “But for its sustenance and beauty, not so much the discomfort of harvesting it. Gratitude, a full two months before Thanksgiving.”