Lake County Past: Oct. 6
Wild rice harvest spotty at best
A driving rain, temperatures in the low 40's and heavy wind made us think it was a day better suited for waterfowl than threshing wild rice from a canoe.
Only Lake County extension agent Wayne Seidel and yours truly would decide it was a fine day to go ricing.
But enough blue sky also blew by and kept us looking for that secluded "motherlode of rice" in the lee of a point covered by black spruce or below a steep glacial esker thick with red pine germinated after fires in the 1890s and again in 1918.
We stayed tucked close to the shores to be out of the insistent winds and found most of our ruminating was about how good next year's crop will be which offers a big clue as to our day's harvest. It was minimal at best.
But a day of ricing is never minimal when you're in a country full of sphagnum moss and slow rivers, golden aspens, hawks and moose wallows.
Rice beds in portions of Lake County were late in ripening this year due to cool weather and after high winds blew across the central portion of the county. We got to the remaining Zizania aquatica with not a day to spare. Poling through the beds, we guessed upwards of 90 percent of the grain had already been whisked from the stalks to seed next year's crop.
Legend has it the nameless lake we were on was the site of Ojibwe ricing camps for hundreds of years. There still remains telltale signs of parching fires and winnowing areas along a graceful ridge on the east shore of the lake. Area log builder and resident mythologist Ron Brodigan said since the woodland cultures first came through the area perhaps a thousand years ago they found enough good rice and caribou to keep them coming back year after year for the life sustaining harvests and enough mamagwashi, windigos and big snows to ensure their visits were but seasonal in nature.
A number of lakes and drainages in Lake County support wild rice, which isn't actually rice but a wild aquatic grass.
Mahnomen, or mahnomenee as it is known in Ojibwe, will germinate and prosper only in shallow silty waters. When the first French explorers came through the north country they called it "crazy oats."
Wayne kept the ricing sticks deftly moving throughout the day, pulling thatches of stalks over the gunwales and then hitting the grains only hard enough to loosen the ones that were ripe. When there was a nice sound like small hail in the bottom of the canoe we knew we were into a nice ripe bed. There were very few of those on this trip.
As we poled past a flat half submerged rock about the size of a large pine stump, Wayne openly wondered how many other people had riced their way past that exact place over the centuries.