A student taps rice sticks to harvest wild rice.
What's cooking at wild rice camp?
Discovering a tasty and healthy tradition.
Story and photos by Marilynn Nash
A new world was revealed to me when I attended a wild ricing camp hosted by Washburn County's Hunt Hill Audubon Sanctuary in Sarona. Although I love eating wild rice, harvesting it wasn't something I had considered doing before.
To prepare for the camp, I purchased a wild rice harvesting license from the Department of Natural Resources. To satisfy my curiosity about wild rice harvesting — my homework before the camp — I also visited the DNR website to learn more about wild rice harvesting regulations and lakes open to harvesting. I learned that wild rice harvesting in Wisconsin is open to Wisconsin residents only and that rice ripens at varying times depending upon water depth, clarity and sediment type for each water body. I also learned that the Native American Tribal Ricing Authority works with the Department of Natural Resources to announce when each lake is open to harvest wild rice, after conducting ground and air surveys.
Excited by my new knowledge, I was ready for camp. On departure day I took country roads and the winding, tree–lined drive to Hunt Hill's flora- and fauna-filled site. Checking in, exploring the grounds and getting to know the other participants filled the time before dinner. Dinner, like the rest of the meals served at the camp, included wild rice dishes. We savored dinner, which featured wild rice as a side and in rice pudding for dessert, along with spinach salad and fish.
After dinner we carved rice harvesting sticks. We used white cedar because it is rot–resistant, floats and is light–weight, helping prevent tired arm muscles and, more importantly, damage to rice plants. We shaped our sticks while listening to a presentation by instructors John Haack, a University of Wisconsin-Extension natural resources educator, and Mike Bartz, a retired regional conservation warden. Both are experienced wild rice harvesters.
They informed us of the cultural significance of wild rice to the Dakota, Menominee and Anishinaabe (Chippewa or Ojibwe, who call wild rice "manoomin”). Haack explained that manoomin has been harvested for centuries, an important, spiritual part of Ojibwe culture and a food staple.
"That feeling and that respect for the rice is still there,” Haack said.
Wild rice was also an important food source for early European explorers and fur traders. Their journals refer to wild rice. The significance of wild rice in the region is reflected in lakes, rivers and towns that have "rice,” "manoomin” or "poygan” (Menominee word for gathering rice) in their names.
Haack and Bartz went over the rules and regulations of wild rice harvesting, which are designed in part to protect future rice crops. Boats must be no longer than 17 feet and no wider than 38 inches, and must be propelled by muscle power only, using a push–pole or canoe paddle. Harvesting sticks must be smooth, rounded, wooden rods or sticks that are not longer than 38 inches, and must be operated by hand. No mechanical device may be used for gathering or harvesting wild rice in any water of the state.
The following day, after a hearty breakfast which included piping–hot wild rice topped with hot milk, brown sugar and cinnamon, we went out twice to harvest wild rice. The first time out I used one of my handcrafted pair of sticks to bend the rice stalks over the canoe and the other to tap the stalks to release ripe grains, which dropped into the canoe. I resisted the urge to tap harder to dislodge the grains that remained clinging to the stalk, because they weren't ripe enough yet. Excessive force damages the plants, preventing further harvest from them. I left them to be harvested another time.
We had tucked our pants into our socks and used duct tape at the top of our shoes to block wild rice from entering. As we worked, some of the rice stuck to our clothing. We were careful to keep sand and rocks out of the rice for food safety reasons, but also to protect the processing equipment.
The second time out, after a refreshing shore lunch, I took my turn poling the canoe while my husband harvested the rice. Poling was harder than it looked! We tried two different poles. Ricing poles are usually 15 to 19 feet long. Some are aluminum and others are handcrafted out of tamarack, designed with forked ends to protect rice beds. It was awkward at first, because the pole never did touch a firm lake bed. A thick layer of silt or muck covered the bottom of the lake, which is what wild rice beds need. I took care to avoid damaging the wild rice plants. Placing the pole into the water to propel the canoe, then retrieving it hand–over–hand from the water and switching sides as needed, while standing taxed muscles in my entire body. But seeing the wild rice collecting in the bottom of the canoe made it worth the effort.
We paddled ashore, gathered the rice from the bottom of the canoe and packed it into bags before heading back to camp for dinner.
Evening activities included spreading the rice we had harvested on tarps to dry overnight before carpooling to take in a guided visit to the Wisconsin Canoe Heritage Museum in Spooner. The guide there showed us the workshop adjoining the museum, where canoes are built and canoe building classes are conducted.
On the third day, participants packed up the wild rice, which had been air–drying overnight. It was time for our rice to be parched, hulled and winnowed. We had all agreed to combine our rice and then redistribute it in equal amounts after processing. Instructors led us to one of the wild rice processors in the area. We were fascinated by the parching process, in which our rice was loaded into a revolving metal drum over a very hot fire to further reduce moisture content and loosen the sheath covering the seed.
Then our rice was machine–threshed and winnowed.
Mechanized wild rice processing is common in the area. However, some harvesters prefer traditional processing, which is more labor–intensive and is also used ceremonially. Parching consists of continuous stirring in a cast iron kettle over a fire. Threshing is accomplished by stomping on wild rice wearing clean moccasins and clothing. Then to remove the chaff from the grain, wild rice is winnowed using a tray made by attaching birch bark to an ash rim with basswood fiber.
Whether traditional or mechanized, I gained valuable knowledge and experience.
Now my pantry contains two gallon jars of wild rice that I harvested. The rice sits on the shelf alongside wild rice I had purchased in previous years, which is labeled as cultivated (not hand–harvested). Before attending the camp I had not realized the difference. Cultivated or paddy–grown wild rice may be grown using fertilizers, herbicides or insecticides and has a genetic difference.
Other things I learned:
My classmates and I agreed that wild rice harvesting was a significant experience that allowed us to connect with nature in a way that is hard to put into words.
As interest in local foods increases, wild rice harvesting is an option to consider.
Referring to wild rice harvesting, Haack said, "In the future it's going to be much more appreciated than it is now.”
Marilynn Nash is a travel and outdoor writer and journalism graduate from the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire.