Wild, wild Midwest: A day on the rice camps of northern Wisconsin

Nick VanderPuy has been ricing for most of his adult life.

Nick VanderPuy has been ricing for most of his adult life. Beth Dooley

It’s been a good year for our region’s wild rice. The harvest is early, and the kernels are plump and prodigious.

On an early September morning, just before sunrise, I left the Twin Cities to join Nick VanderPuy at his rice camp on a remote lake north of Hayward, Wisconsin. Every year, from late August through late September, Nick hauls in about 200 pounds of green rice that he’ll process into 100 pounds of finished rice for friends and neighbors, and to stock his larder.

Wild rice isn’t really rice at all, but the kernel of a wild grass, indigenous to northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, and parts of Canada. It’s nothing like the shiny, cultivated black paddy rice that sells for about half the price in supermarkets, bait shops, and gas stations along the highways heading north. For indigenous people, wild rice is both a staple and sacred food that is served at all traditional ceremonies and celebrations. Cracked and cooked into a cereal, it nourishes infants and the infirm; its name in Ojibwe, manoomin, means “good berry” or “good seed.” In Ojibwe origin stories, a series of prophesies led the tribes from the East to the food that grows on water.

Nick has been ricing for most of his adult life, and now, in his mid-60s, mentors younger ricers and novices like me. On the shore where we meet, he’s spread the green rice out on a tarp to dry in the sun. Flocks of red-winged black birds swoop into the piles plucking out rice worms. I pick up a kernel and peel back the hard, spiky cover to reveal a soft chartreuse grain, slightly grassy and sweet.

At season’s end, with the help of several friends, Nick will roast the rice in huge aluminum kettles over an open fire while stirring it with paddles. They’ll hull it in a rotating drum to remove the chaff. In traditional Ojibwe ricing ceremonies, an adolescent male or young woman wearing special moccasins dances on top of the rice to the beat of a drum to crush the hull. To finish the process, Nick tosses the rice in big, flat birchbark baskets so the heavier kernels drop while the loosened chaff flies off.

At the shore, Nick hands me a pouch of tobacco and we put a pinch into the lake—an offering—before pushing our canoe into the warm, clear water and heading toward the tall gossamer green waving us forward. Since the early 1900s, the Wisconsin and Minnesota DNR and the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission have protected the many rice lakes and riverbeds from pollution with strict regulations against boating, fertilizers, pesticides, and septic tank runoff. Most recently, however, the Minnesota Senate passed a bill to strike a longstanding state rule that limits sulfate discharge into waters where wild rice grows and restricts the ability of state regulators to set another standard. Over the past 10 years, invasive species and a series of catastrophic floods have damaged rice beds, a trend that may continue as climate change brings more frequent and severe rainstorms and warmer temperatures.

Like the proverbial canary in the coalmine, wild rice will not grow if the water is out of balance. When we lose the wild rice, we lose much of the wildlife that depends on it, too: fish, ducks, geese, and the tiny rice birds that hop along the lily pads and matted stalks.

But for now, time stands still as the sun arcs over the expansive, cloudless sky. The only sounds are of Nick poling the canoe through the tall grass and of the tap-tap of my “knockers” sending seed heads into the boat. Nick stands, balanced in the stern, looking out for patches where the stalks arch under the weight of their kernels. Using the long, tapered cedar knockers, I bend the grass over the boat with one stalk and tap its head with the other. Husks rain down, along with spiders and wriggling gray rice worms that continue to bite and itch long after I’ve left the boat.

Across the water, as we swish along, my tap-tapping is echoed by other ricers, bent to their own rhythm. A fish jumps; a goose honks in the ancient music of the harvest. Wild rice grows only in this particular watershed, within the ancestral homelands of the Anishinaabeg. To this day, harvesting is restricted to residents of Minnesota and Wisconsin who must first obtain a license. It’s so significant to the Ojibwe that the lands with the best rice stands are reserved for ricing by Native Americans alone. Nick and I dip our hands into the water to cool our necks and sip from the clean, clear lake.

Shadows lengthen and we head to shore—offering another pinch of tobacco as thanks—and pull the canoe, now heavy with rice, up onto land. We scoop out our harvest to spread on those tarps. Later this fall, after Nick has finished the rice, I’ll stock the pantry for soups, stews, and pilafs.

When cooked, this wild rice tastes of the clear, flinty water, of smoke, of the woods. It’s ready in about 20 minutes, unlike cultivated paddy rice that requires soaking and a good 45 to 50 minutes of simmering. Though it may seem expensive at about $15 to $20 a pound compared to the $5 per pound cultivated rice commands, its distinctive flavor makes it well worth it. And it presents the question of what we’re willing to pay for an indigenous food that grows without fertilizers or chemicals—food that supports wildlife, is sacred, nutritious, satisfying, and delicious. Food that tastes of this remarkable place.