Minnesota has more than 100 lakes named "Long," and I am about to launch onto one of them with a companion to gather wild rice. Our ritual has varied little in the four years we have harvested here. The 15-foot aluminum canoe sits next to the dock, waiting for gear. The dock—its wooden, well-worn gray planks slightly askance—straddles the line between water and shore. This is a sweet private access, one we gained permission to use with a gift of finished wild rice and a promise of more when the season is done.
I'm at this lake because 10 years earlier I launched myself on a great adventure, chasing after a doctorate in land resources, with a personal interest in understanding wild rice harvest and management. I had questions, and no one seemed able to provide answers. Along the journey my heart was captured by wild rice. Paddling into the tall stems, perched on my kayak while the water breathed beneath me and the lightest of breezes made the wild rice dance, I felt connected. Outnumbered and ungraceful among the slender, swaying grass, I waited alone to listen and understand. Days visiting rice lakes were days I looked forward to. Quiet times observing and exploring.
This was a new way of being with a plant that I had often encountered while canoeing down small tributaries to the Mississippi River. A plant that I had watched others harvest in the fall, long poles pushing boats into the rice. From those earlier river forays had come my guiding research questions: Who is watching out for wild rice? Wild rice is no longer found where I was raised in southern Minnesota. Where else has it disappeared? Who is paying attention? Might I find answers by talking to those who still harvest wild rice? Who puts aside weekends and takes time off from work in the short autumn window to harvest?
For my research, I spent several years "chasing the rice" or, more accurately, chasing wild rice gatherers. Today, I am one of them.
At the landing, we load empty seed bags, twine, ricing sticks (knockers), a small cooler, and jugs of water into the canoe. I settle a little webbed stool, which my husband uses for turkey hunting, into the bottom. Its angled seat provides just enough clearance to keep my back from cramping up while sitting low in the boat and knocking rice. I test my balance, noting whether I feel a lean to the right or left, and adjust accordingly with a slight scooch of my hips.
Kristi, my frequent ricing partner, picks up the long wooden push pole and steps into what is usually the bow, where she has room to stand. I smile thinking of all the times I've told my students, "Never stand in a canoe." With experience, we have learned that she is better at poling than I am. She is strong and able to push a 65-pound canoe carrying a 400-pound load through closely packed stands of wild rice. I am counting on the fact that she has never tipped us.
Long Lake, less than 15 feet deep in most areas, has dense stands of tall rice along parts of its shoreline. We head for the thickest patch. Here the stalks grow almost on top of each other, resisting any movement through them. The narrow tip of the canoe finds space in which to split the stems, creating an opening that widens as my ricing partner pushes us forward.
Poling a canoe through thick stands of rice takes constant effort, balance, and focus. The idea is to plant one end of the 16-foot pole firmly against the bottom of the lake or stream, and then walk your hands up the pole, pushing the canoe forward. This is easier said than done. Wild rice typically grows in mucky, loose substrates. "Bottom" is often not a hard surface but rather a thickening of mud interspersed with submerged roots and decaying plants. Finding leverage can be difficult, so a good push pole has either a forked end or a hinged "duck bill" attachment that spreads open with each push.
My job is to gather the wild rice seed into the canoe by "knocking" with two tapered cedar sticks, 30 inches long. Grasping one in each hand, I reach out with my left arm and collect an armful of wild rice. The canoe's forward momentum and my extended arm work together to pull the stems over the edge of the canoe. With my right arm, I sweep the tops of the stems with a solid, brushing stroke of the cedar that finishes near the bottom of the boat. If the rice is ripe, just pulling the stalks in will cause the seed to shatter away from the stem. Sweeping the tops further encourages the rice to disengage from the stalk and rain into the canoe. Some of the seed falls into the water and will bolster the harvest next year.
We move slowly through the first bed of wild rice. Blown-down plants create floating mats that drag on the canoe. I have time to reach and gather stalks from both sides of the boat as Kristi retrieves the pole from her last push. We are surrounded by rice stalks, and they seem to be winning a silent protest against our presence.
Hidden within the wild rice, I have little fear of tipping over as stalks press in on all sides. Thick rice means more plants, and more plants mean more seeds to harvest. But the seeds must be ripe or they won't fall well. And throughout this rice bed, ripeness varies. In fact, on each plant ripeness varies. A successful harvest requires finding ripe rice among the thousands of stalks stretching across the shallows of this 700-acre lake. Here, close to shore, the rice is not falling well. It's time to move on.
Kristi is glad to leave behind the dense stand as she poles us toward more open water. Further away from shore, the rice becomes shorter, thinning in places because wind and waves buffet the plants. Here we pick up our pace a bit.
I am still fine-tuning my technique. The goal of knocking is to dislodge all ripe rice and to leave the stalks intact so they can continue to produce more rice on the same stalk. Then we can come back to this lake two or three more times in this season to gather. Breaking the stalks ends gathering. Longtime harvesters understand this and do all they can to educate new harvesters.
Kristi begins to find her pace with the push pole, and my swinging arms start to move in rhythm. Gather, sweep, sweep. Gather, sweep, sweep. I alternate sides in a dance step that is guided by the growth of wild rice. One-two-three. One-two-three. One-two-three. The rhythm of a thick stand. Ten minutes later, we reach an opening in the rice. I pause and breathe a sigh of relief. Each lake, every partner produces a different rhythm. There are endless dance steps to learn.
Pausing after a lunch eaten in the canoe, we watch a red-winged blackbird perform a practiced ritual on the edge of the rice bed. The bird flies down to the base of a small cluster of rice plants about a foot above the water. Grasping several stalks with its feet, the bird sidesteps up the rice stems. The genius of this maneuver is becoming clear. Closer to the top of the plant, where the mature seeds reside, stems thin and would not support the weight of a bird landing on them. Hanging on to several stalks as they bend, the blackbird can sidestep down to the heads of rice, then select, pick, and shuck seeds one by one while staying dry. We watch in fascination as the bird repeats its harvesting ritual over and over.
Glancing down at the bottom of our canoe, I inventory our growing pile. In addition to 20-plus pounds of wild rice, we have gathered perhaps a pound and a half of spiders and rice worms, which are crawling out of the seed. The worms inch along, looking for somewhere to hide. The cuffs of pants legs and the crannies around bootlaces are good choices. The worms' squishiness may go undetected until you stand up or accidently brush one down your leg.
Spiders seem bent on stitching you into the canoe under a fine garland of webbing. Some long-legged spiders nearly disappear among the rice. Other species are round and robust, cream and white in color. I'm not fond of spiders, but in the canoe we have reached a truce. I will not flail or scream, and they will leave me fairly well alone.
Spiders and worms aren't the only wildlife we spot while collecting wild rice. Sora rails, also known as rice hens, flush out of the rice stands like feathered softballs as we push our way through. Within seconds they disappear again into the wild rice—only to be flushed once again as we continue moving. Are there a dozen rails in here, or only two or three well-traveled ones?
As the wild rice piles up in our canoe, I consider the stories that harvesters gave to me during my research—words spoken like the rice that showers down around me. Each harvester has his or her reasons for gathering wild rice. Their experiences shape connections to this centuries-old tradition.
Now, as I return to wild rice waters each season, I realize that the harvest has become part of my story. And I am deeply grateful for my relationship with wild rice. These autumn days of gathering are a gift of time, a slowing of life, and an awakening of the senses. With every grain gathered, I feel alive and connected—not just to these wild rice lakes, each with their own character and quirks, but also to a community of harvesters stretching back in time and outward across miles. All of us are gathering for sustenance of some sort. Mine is the joy of giving gifts of finished wild rice to family and friends, and of gracing our table with a steaming dish of wild rice, hand-harvested from waters close to home.
Learn more about wild rice harvesting in Minnesota.