Thursday, September 3, 2009

Calm river, wild rice

The Otter Tail River was calm and clear. Clouds, trees and grasses reflected off the surface that Dave poled our canoe through. The grasses were the reason we were spending the day on the river. Huge beds of wild rice bordered this bend in the river and we were harvesting the slender seeds for the winter.

Wild rice is actually a grass, not a rice. It grows in three to five feet of water, and the seed heads of healthy plants towered above my head when Dave forced the canoe into the thickest clumps. The seeds ripen from the bottom of the stalk toward the top and on Saturday, most of the grains were not yet ripe, but by Sunday, many more seeds fell into our canoe as we harvested.

To harvest wild rice, you need a license from the state. Then you need a boat (no more than three feet wide, like a canoe), a paddle or pole to move the boat, and two knocking sticks (no more than 30” long.)

Dave worked from the stern, paddling the canoe through the grasses, sometimes using his paddle to push where the grasses grew very close together. I sat in the bow, facing Dave and used one stick to bend the rice stalks over the canoe and the other stick to thwack the seed heads. With each thwack, seeds fell into the canoe in front of me. It was almost meditative. My hands and arms worked without direction from my brain. I didn’t have to steer the canoe. All I had to do was sweep rice over the gunnels of the canoe with my right arm, thwack it with my left, sweep grasses over the gunnels of the canoe with my left arm, thwack it with my right, and repeat. My eyes and ears took in the world around me, narrowed down to a patch of clear water below me, a patch of blue sky above me, and grasses as far as my eyes could see.

Saturday, five of us worked on that patch of wild rice. In two hours that morning , we harvested almost 20 pounds of rice. The individual seeds lay in the bottom of our canoes with the heavy end down and a single beard like fiber pointing straight up. Little bits of rice has drifted into our shirts and pants and even into our underwear. We stopped to bag what we had harvested and to have lunch.

We sat on an old bridge overlooking the river and ate ham and tomato sandwiches on fresh baguettes with fresh peaches for dessert. The sun was warm on our backs. Swallows swooped and disappeared under the bridge. Dozens of small green and brown leopard frogs greeted us when we walked back down to the water to work the afternoon shift.

My license allows me to harvest rice from 9 am until 3 pm until the season closes sometime in mid September. By the end of the day, we had gathered 47 pounds of rice. The man who processes wild rice has a 300 pound minimum because of the size of his processing equipment.

Sunday morning, we attempted to process rice on our own. We had spread it out to dry over night. Then we put several cups of rice into a cast iron skillet and Dave’s brother Paul, his wife Jenny, and nephews Graham and Tyler heated it over medium heat until it browned. The seeds popped and crackled. When they began to smell like popcorn, we poured the parched rice into a bowl and tried different techniques to remove the outer seed coat. Niece Becca, Jenny and Dave rubbed it, stomped on it, pounded it with rocks, cooking utensils, hands and feet.

Finally we resorted to the internet and learned that we should have only parched the seeds until they began to pop and were not at all brown. We had popped our rice seed and then burned it. The Ojibway used big cast iron kettles on open fires, constantly moving the rice around on low heat for up to half an hour. They next poured the parched rice into holes in the ground lined with deerskin and people danced on the seeds to remove the outer coat. Finally, they winnowed the rice by pouring the seeds from one cowl to another in the wind, allowing the chaff to blow away and the rice seed to fall into the bottom bowl.

At this point, we decided to try to harvest another 250 pounds of rice. There was no way that we were going to process our own. Dave’s sister and her family joined us. If anything, Sunday was an even more perfect day on the river. A bald eagle soared over head. We startled a flock of red winged blackbirds feasting on the wild rice and they rose and flew with a loud rush of wings. We paddled into a small clearing in the rice stalks and found a pair of water lilies blooming.

By 3 p.m. we had 100 pounds of rice. If we can get in one more day of harvesting, we might reach 300 pounds. Alternatively, the processor could combine our rice with another small batch and we won’t have to learn the patience of the Native Americans or the persistence of the subsistence hunter gatherer.

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