Learning to Wild Rice (By Adele Smith & Margaret Dexter – Charter Menbers of WHF)
Asked by a friend, “do you want to try and harvest wild rice with me this year?” I said “sure, that sounds like fun.” I wasn’t sure what I was getting into but I was willing to give it a try. Learning on the fly is how we roll and yes it was a fun, physical, time consuming, ritual embellished experience. You can learn a lot from reading articles and watching videos but it sure is nice to go with experienced people to show you the ropes. Manoomin is the
Ojibwe word for wild rice. Native people have harvested it for centuries and not a lot has changed in the method.
What it takes to go manoomin-ing.
A canoe the proper dimensions (not longer than 18’, not wider than 36”), a push pole to move you through the bed without damaging the rice plants, flails (or knocking sticks), a permit, and a place to harvest.
It really is a two person job and you are better off with an understanding partner so when you hit them in the head with a 16 foot pole or they flay you with a flail and you both fall over inside the confines of the canoe you can laugh or cry together.
Our first day started with a three hour drive to a beautiful site on the upper Mississippi. The weather was cool and the sun was hiding in the early morning mist. We met our mentors at the river and launched the canoes for a two mile paddle up stream to the rice beds. We were instructed on how to gently bend the rice over the edge of the canoe and brush the stalk to release the rice. Ricing hours are from 9:00am to 3:00pm. It was 9:00 and our mentors, anxious to get going said “We’ll meet for Lunch” and they were off to harvest. We watched them skillfully glide away through the waving stalks of rice and disappear.
“Hey, how do you use the pole?” “Does the duck bill face this way or that way?” “Do I really have to stand up?” “I feel pretty shaky standing up. I wouldn’t want to tip over out here.” “I have always been told not to stand up in a canoe.” “You could try poling on your derrière.” “Geez, this stuff is thick.” “Are we even moving?” It works a lot better to stand – rule or no rule.
Taking turns at the two jobs – poling and flailing is the best way to survive six hours in a waving field of thick four to five foot stalks of rice. Poling along we soon found out that standing is not so tippy in thick growth because you are supported by plants on either side and your pole is pushing down on the roots of the stalks. Be careful not to damage the plants. The grains on a single stalk ripen at different rates so you can harvest a bed several times during the season if you don’t break the plant stems. Push with a long steady hand over hand movement till you reach the end of your pole. Make sure to hang on to it at the end of the push. I found that the duck foot on the end of the pole does its best to stay at the bottom. Losing the pole a number of times was only one aspect of poling. Trying to turn the boat around was a whole ‘nother ball game.
Standing high above the rice I could feel the sun and wind on my face and see other ricers going smoothly up and down the beds taking advantage of the wind letting it lean the tall stalks into the canoe. My partner, sitting down low had only a view of grass and spider webs in the breezeless bottom. “How do I turn this thing in another direction?” Water in the face, down the arms, fear of breaking the pole but finally I could change direction. Prying seemed to work. Another skill learned.
Thank goodness for lunch, sitting down in the rice at water level is peaceful with the canoe snug in the embrace of these strong water plants. We watched ducks and other birds feeding noisily as we ate our sandwiches and sipped our water. Our mentors joined us and asked how we were doing. One look in our canoe at the rice that had just started to look like a coating of soft fur compared to their heaping pile that looked like a massive grizzly coat a foot thick told the story. We thought we were doing okay for beginners. Mastering the techniques would take some time.
Taking turns poling and flailing is a good idea but how do you change places without going to shore? It is really fun I’m sure, for others to watch the changing of positions! The Flailer gets on hands and knees in a tuck position on the bottom of the canoe. At this point with your head in the harvested rice you are really in a different world of no-see’ems that you can see. Little white flies, long, legged spiders, small wiggling worms, and the close-up ends of the rice husks, called beards (but they look more like tails). This is a do-not-breathe moment, for if one of those barbed beards/tails gets up your nose or down your throat it is almost impossible to get out. And it will dig itself in tight. Now that one is on all fours the poler leapfrogs over the top to allow for the transition: poler to flailer, flailer to poler. It is good to give your partner a chance to find out what it is like to stand tall in the breeze above the rice and grip the pole, to feel the resistance on the front of the canoe from the thick stalks, to get their sea legs set with knees ready to be steadied on the back of the sitting partner after the first pole push.
Sitting down with knockers (flails) in hand, rice above your head and moving across your face with a surge and a glide you try to get a rhythm with the 30” flails. Out with one to gather the stalks, over with the other to wisp across the stalk and hear the tap, tap, tap of the falling rice on the bare bottom of the canoe. As the rice builds up around your feet it takes on a wave pattern of softness. Each new husk dives grain end down and takes its place among the other harvested husks riding with their speared tails to the sky waiting to snag a sleeve or pant leg. The crawling companions that come with the grain start to make themselves at home spinning networks’ of webs off of resting paddles, lunch boxes, and the bodies of their new host. As the hours pass a rhythm develops and the rice is falling into deep waves of softness. Sounds of falling grain are no longer heard as the canoe fills with the tiny grains.
The sun has hit its peak and is on its way to the west when we see other harvesters heading for the edge of the rice beds. Three o’clock and our day is over. It is time to switch to paddles and head back to the landing to bag up our harvest. We carefully pole our way out of the rice bed to open water before picking up our paddles. We are glad to be out in deep water again with only the resistance of the river current. Tired and a little sore from the repetitive new movements we relish the openness and freedom as we paddle. We are pretty proud of ourselves and our haul. We start the drive home as the sun begins to set. We talk about our day and all we have learned. We are ready to go again!