The above image, Dave & Amy Freeman ricing on Nina Moose Lake, was featured in the 2018 Boundary Waters & Quetico Calendar.
The following article was originally published by Raven Words Press in the 1999 Ely Summer Times.
In late summer, when the wild rice ripens on the shallow, mucky-bottomed waterways near Ely and throughout northern Minnesota and Wisconsin, you may meet a few people who are “going ricing.” Undoubtedly, these are people who love being outdoors, aren’t squeamish about worms or spiders, and don’t mind hours of hard work for a minimal return from a dollars and cents perspective. Harvesting wild rice is tough, but those who have enjoyed its rewards return to their favorite rice beds each August with a happy heart.
Wild rice isn’t really rice at all, botanically speaking. It’s a grass. It grows thickly in water a few inches to several feet deep, and re-seeds itself each fall as the ripe kernels germinate anywhere from one to several years later, ensuring the viability of a rice bed even through a few years of flooding or drought. A favorite food of ducks and other waterfowl, it also supports a population of “rice worms” and small, long-legged spiders.
The rice kernels ripen over a period of several weeks from mid-August through mid-September. Each stalk may have kernels ripening every day over a two-week period. When a kernel is ripe, any slight disturbance knocks it off the head, while the green kernels still cling to the stalk. This characteristic is responsible for the harvesting method originated by Native Americans centuries ago and still used in natural rice beds today.
Ricers usually work in pairs, with one person poling or paddling the canoe from the rear. Poling is often necessary because of the shallowness of the water and thickness of the rice. The second ricer sits or kneels behind the middle of the canoe holding to ricing sticks, one in each hand. With one stick she reaches around the nearest stalks of rice, bending their heads over the canoe. With the other sticks, she taps the heads, dislodging the ripe kernels but allowing the green kernels to remain on the stalk. Alternating sides, she repeats this process as the canoe moves slowly through the rice.
The sound of the rice kernels hitting the canoe is dear to the hears of ricers. It’s a measure of the success of each stroke. As the hours go by, the bottom of the canoe fills with the rice kernels. Each kernel has a long, hair-like bristle at one end. the weight of the kernel causes it to land with the bristle sticking up, so that the bottom of the canoe soon resembles a rough fur. Spiders and rice worms fall into the canoe along with the rice. The small white worms say in the rice feasting, but the spiders quickly scurry off to a corner of the canoe and begin weaving webs. Soon the canoe resembles an entomology display.
At the end of the day, the rice is spread in a think layer on tarps. Just like new mown hay, it must be dried before it is stored or it will generate heat that could spoil the rice. It may also mold, although that doesn’t hurt the final product after processing. in fact, some let it mold on purpose, preferring the flavor — perhaps like a fine cheese. Most ricers dry their rice for a day or two in the sun or indoors. Drying it in the house results in a fascinating array of spider webs to which some fastidious housekeepers may object. Once dry, the rice is re-bagged and can be stored indefinitely before being processed.
At this point many people take their rice to a processing plant, where they return to pickup the finished product after a few days. But many Native Americans, and a few others, process their rice by hand. Either way, the rice must be parched, threshed, and winnowed to separate the inedible husks from the edible grain.
The first step in parching, or heating the rice so that the husk dries and loosens. For hand processing a huge pan is placed over a slow fire and the rice is stirred, usually with a wooden paddle. Processing plants use a gas fired machine that resembles a drier, tumbling and heating the rice kernels.
Next the loosened husks must be separated from the kernels by threshing. Native Americans dance lightly on the parched kernels wearing moccasins. This certainly seems much more romantic than tumbling the rice in a paddle wheel type device as is done in processing plants.
For those hand processing rice a windy day is needed to sort the husks — now called chaff, from the edible grain. With a large blanket or tarp the rice is tossed into the air. The husks are blown away, but the heavier kernels from back onto the cloth. The machine method uses big fans in this process.
Hand processed rice, it is claimed, has a better flavor. Because it has a higher moisture content, it can be popped like popcorn — delicious and nutritious treat.
Processing plants charge about $0.65 per finished pound, or they may take a percentage of the rice to sell. Most require a minimum of 100 pounds. They make take smaller amounts if they can combine it with other rice. But you don’t receive your own rice that way.
Commercially grown and harvested wild rice, also called “paddy rice” is a form of natural wild rice bred to be more amenable to agricultural production. Its development has been responsible for the decreased prices for wild rice and for a decline in the number of ricers harvesting on Minnesota’s lake and rivers. Paddy rice requires a longer cooking time and is less flavorful than natural wild rice, so gourmet cooks and old timers have a strong preference for hand-picked rice. And since natural rice harvesting has been an important part of Native American economy, many prefer to purchase rice that is sold by local Ojibway people.
In Minnesota the rice season is regulated by the DNR in cooperation with native tribal councils. Local tribes regulate harvesting on reservations. Officials keep an eye on the rice and open the season on major rice lakes with the rice ripens. Early in the season ricing is permitted only a few hours every other day to avoid damaging the green rice. Later, when most of the rice is ripe, these restrictions are lifted. A ricing license is required for anyone involved in harvesting. These are available only to MN residents and cost $15.00 each.
With the hard work and expenses, it may seem to make more sense to buy wild rice. But for those who love ricing, no monetary value can be put on the experience. The sunlight has changed from its summer intensity, the autumn colors are deepening, the canoe moves magically through rice stalks stretching overhead, and the kernels whisper a promise of good eating as they strike the sides of the canoe. Each day of ricing brings back the pleasant memories of past seasons, past ricing partners, past hot dishes shared at family celebrations. You just can’t put a price on that.