I remember when I went ricing for the first time. I was excited because my mom and dad said we’d get to take the canoe out. I loved going out in the canoe and skimming across the water. Fun like that was not to be missed! After the great feat of lifting the sixty pound aluminum canoe onto the back of the truck, we were ready to go.
When we arrived at a lake there were several other people already standing around on shore. I wondered what was going on. As it turned out, we had arrived early and had to wait until the exact time the season opened. Apparently, it’s not even legal to rice between sunset and ten in the morning. So we waited. After a few minutes, and a unanimous vote that the season had started, we all headed out. At first it didn’t seem so different—we were just paddling after all—but then we found the rice. It looked a lot like oats. The narrow, greenish yellow stalks grew nearly four feet above the water. Wild rice is a close cousin to the common rice that is indigenous to Asia. Both are in the grass family, Poaceae. Explorers in the 17th and 18th centuries encountered seven foot tall wild rice that grew so thick that it posed a challenge to navigation. I just wondered how we would get the rice into the canoe.
As we approached the edge of the rice, my dad quit paddling and took out one very long stick, which he called a duckbill. It had a “V” at one end, and if I used my imagination, it did look a lot like the bill of a duck. He used the pole to push us forward, making it easier and less damaging to move forward through the stalks. It is illegal to use a motorboat for ricing, since the motor would really tear up the rice beds.
My mom grabbed two short wooden poles, each less than three feet in length, and swept a bundle of rice across the side of the canoe with one pole as she gently knocked the rice into the bottom of the canoe with the other. No wonder they are called knockers! The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) requires knockers to be rounded, so that the rice stalks are not as damaged in the ricing process.
The rice began to rain down—some falling into the canoe, some falling into the water. At first this worried me; we weren’t catching all the rice! But then my parents told me that it was okay. Wild rice is an annual plant, so it grows from seed each year. When the rice falls into the water, it is being replanted for the following year. Despite knocking many seeds into the lake, we ended up with forty pounds of rice. This was enough for us, while still leaving plenty for others. Wild rice is an important food source not only for humans, but also for muskrats, deer, and at least sixteen species of birds.
Humans and wildlife have eaten wild rice from Wisconsin’s lakes and streams for many hundreds of years. It was first gathered by indigenous people such as the Ojibwa, Menominee, and Sioux. Now it can be harvested by anyone willing to learn how. Thanks to regulation by the DNR and representatives of local tribes, ricing can be carried out safely and sustainably. By regulating which lakes and streams can be riced when, there is less of a possibility that an area will be overharvested.
After collecting the rice, there are still a few more steps to go through before making a meal. First, the rice needs to be parched. This means that the rice is heated up and dried out. Once it is no longer wet, it can be thrashed in order to break open the hulls. The hulls are a type of casing around the rice—you could eat it, but must people just want to eat the rice on the inside. That’s why the casings need to be broken and then winnowed. By winnowing the rice, the broken hulls are blown away. This process may be performed several times in order to make sure all the hulls are off of the rice.
The ricing season may be open anytime from mid-August to mid-September. Since each lake and stream is different, look for postings at public access points and check with the local DNR service center for information about when areas are open to ricing. Before heading out on the water, it is also necessary to acquire a permit from the DNR (which costs less than $10).
Even if all you do is cook up some wild rice from the store, you can still appreciate the history of this tasty tradition.
For over 44 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility in Cable at 13470 County Highway M. The new exhibit, The Joy of Birds: Feathers in Focus opened in May, 2011. Find us on the web at www.cablemuseum.org to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Also discover us on Facebook, or at our blogspot, http://cablemuseumnaturalconnections.blogspot.com/.