Welcome back to school and welcome to the final month of A Year in the Wilderness! Dave and I have been in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for 350 days. We have been paddling our canoe all summer, visiting about 470 lakes, rivers and streams. There are sure signs of the fall season around here. The maple leaves have started to turn red, some birch leaves are turning yellow, the nights are getting cooler and school is back in session!
There is an amazing plant here in the BWCAW. It grows in shallow water and ripens in the fall. Maybe you have eaten it. I’m talking about wild rice. Dave and I have been watching the wild rice grow all summer. First we saw their slender leaves and stalks poking up above the surface of the water. Then they got taller and taller. Now the biggest stalks are well over our heads when we are sitting in the canoe. The plants produced a bunch of tiny seeds near the top of the stalk. Those seeds are what we know as wild rice.
Here in Minnesota, wild rice really is wild. I mean it grows naturally in shallow lakes and streams. There is some “wild rice” that is cultivated (grown on a farm). The next time you are in a grocery store, take a look on the shelves for wild rice. You can read the package to find out where it came from.
Have you eaten wild rice before? Do you know where it came from?
It took all summer, but the grains of wild rice are ripe now. They fall off the stalk easily. A gust of wind or a hard rain might make the kernels fall off. When the wild rice falls in the water, it will grow a new plant next spring. An animal, like a swan or a human in a canoe might make the kernels fall off too. The wild rice is a traditional food source for the Native Americans of this region, the Anishinaabe (also known as Ojibwe). The wild rice is such an important part of their traditional way of life that it is considered to be sacred.
We have friends who harvest wild rice, so we asked them when and where they were planning to harvest. As luck would have it, they were planning to harvest rice near where we were! We met up with them a few days ago and have been learning how to harvest wild rice. We are not the only creatures out here harvesting the rice. Over the past week, seven trumpeter swans have been cruising around the same lake. When two of the swans landed in the bay near our campsite, I watched closely to see what they were doing. They used their long necks to reach all the way along the length of stalks of rice to eat the grains!
What other animals do you think eat wild rice?
I will share with you what we have learned about harvesting wild rice. We each got a license to harvest the wild rice. There are two different jobs: making the canoe move and harvesting the rice. Dave and I take turns at each job. The person in charge of moving the canoe paddles or uses a pole to push the canoe through the shallow water. The person who is harvesting rice uses two cedar sticks called flails. One flail is used to gently bend the stalks of rice over the canoe. A light stroke along the stalk of rice with the other flail causes kernels of ripe rice to drop into the canoe. We did this over and over again, slowly moving through the stalks of wild rice. We could tell when we hit a good patch of wild rice by the steady tick, tick, tick sound of the kernels of rice hitting the bottom of the canoe.
At the end of each day we would spread our wild rice out onto a tarp to dry in the sun. Then we would put it away before dark. We have spent the past four days harvesting wild rice. There will still be more work to do with the rice once we are done. Each grain of rice is in a husk. The rice will be winnowed to get rid of the husks. Then it will be parched (or heated) to dry it out so that it can be stored for a long time.
Have you ever harvested anything? Did it come from a garden, orchard, farm or out in the wild?
We can’t wait to see what our finished wild rice is like. I think it will taste extra good because of all the work we put into gathering it!
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