To reach the wild rice camp on Lake Chippewa in northern Wisconsin, I leave the car on the side of a dirt road and take the steep path to a clearing where a canoe rests on shore near a canvas tent. My host, Nick Vander Puy, rices here every season. "It's a bumper crop," he says.
Deep in the Chequamegon National Forest, this spring-fed lake is perfect for the aquatic cereal grass Native Americans call "manoomin." Protected from development by the U.S. Forest Service, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, its water is calm and clear today.
Vander Puy has spread the freshly harvested green-brown stalks on tarps to dry out and expose the rice worms buried within to hungry redwing blackbirds. I peel back a husk to find a chartreuse seed that's soft and tastes like wheat. At season's end in late September, Vander Puy will haul this "green rice" to his home on Madeline Island, in Lake Superior, to roast and winnow. First it's toasted over an open fire in big metal drums, then "danced" on or "jigged" on to loosen the husk. It's tossed in birchbark baskets to release the heavier seed. His 200-pound haul of green rice will yield 100 pounds of finished wild rice.
We push the sleek aluminum canoe into the lapping water and begin paddling across the lake toward an island fringed with pale green grass. I'm in front with the two slender, tapered birchwood sticks, called "knockers." Vander Puy stands in the stern to pole the canoe. He uses a curtain rod wrapped in duct tape with a metal "duck bill" stuck on the end to help grip the mucky bottom.
We slip through the spiky grass and I reach in to gather an armful and bend it down over the boat's center. Then I beat the rice stalks with my stick. The stalks are slick and I try to work quickly as we glide through. Stuff rains into the canoe: grass stalks, husks, spiders and pale brown rice-sized worms. They wriggle over my bare feet and up my legs. "Careful," he says. "They bite."
All day we slide through the fields and over clumps of lily pads. It's quiet, except for the plunk of a jumping fish and whack-whack of my sticks. The sun is high and I'm sweaty and coated with barbed husks. "Don't inhale any; they stick in your throat," Vander Puy warns.
Once we've filled the boat about 3 inches high with wild rice, Vander Puy pushes the greenish-brown mound toward the back with his paddle to make room for more. The afternoon floats on and a breeze kicks up, ruffling the stalks, their pale color deepening in the slanting sun. As trumpeter swans glide across the lake, we pull the canoe back onto shore and spread out our stash on tarps.
Beyond the table
Biologists are researching wild rice's ability to filter water and its potential for reclaiming endangered wetlands. Some suggest that this deep-rooted, self-seeding, hardy plant can alter nutrient levels and compete with the blue-green algae polluting our lakes and rivers.
The wild rice, which is actually a grain rather than rice, is not to be confused with the cultivated paddy version sometimes mislabeled "wild." Paddy rice is uniformly black and shiny; the hybrid variety is grown in California, Minnesota and Canada, harvested with airboats and likely tended with fertilizers and herbicides. Preparing it on the stove takes twice as long to cook, about 45 minutes.
Hand-harvested, toasted winnowed wild rice is pale, variegated brownish-black and dull, not glossy. The French Voyageurs called it "pocket money" because small portions quadrupled in size to feed many.
When cooked, our afternoon's harvest will be chewy, slightly nutty and tasting of wood smoke, the forest, the Indian summer's sun and the shimmering, clear lake where it grows.
Beth Dooley is a Minneapolis writer and cooking instructor.