There were times I’d curse it. When I was growing up I loved to duck hunt on the river behind the house. Huge expanses of wild rice lined the shore in the shallow muddy places. My dog wouldn’t go in the water, so retrieving downed birds in rice patches was almost impossible.
I don’t know how they did it. I’d watch the ducks splash, but when I paddled my boat to the crash site I often couldn’t find them. It made me quit duck hunting.
The only redeeming factor was I began harvesting the wild rice and it was pretty good. I had to wait until late fall or it wasn’t mature. However, if I waited too long either the ducks ate most of it or the heads shattered and all the best seeds were gone.
All during the first duck season and between the first and second seasons I’d check on it. I had an old 1916 Old Town double ended rowboat. Most folks would look at it and call it a wide canoe with extra seats. It was very stable and made a great harvesting vessel.
I’d clean the hull out as best I could and paddle into a thick patch of rice. When I decided there was enough grain to harvest I’d spread a sheet of plastic to line the hull and beat the seed heads over the gunwales and onto the plastic. When I had a half bushel or so I’d head back for home.
Then the tedious part began. I set up a box fan and poured my bounty back and forth from one five-gallon bucket to another until I’d cleaned out all the chaff. In the winnowing process I lost a fair amount of good seeds as well as the chaff, but I didn’t know of a better way to clean it. There was so much wild rice in the river that it didn’t really matter.
This was a rewarding activity for me and I saved my harvest in canning jars. The long slender grains were quite pretty I thought.
I was proud of my accomplishment, but it was lost on my family. You see, we were a potato family. My dad was a plant pathologist who earned his living working with potatoes.
Neither he nor my mother liked rice much anyway, so mom never fixed it. Unless I cooked it for myself, much of it eventually got thrown away. It’s hard to keep the insects out of it. Sometimes eggs made their way into my harvest even if I sealed the jars.
I once considered trying to market the stuff, but I couldn’t find any takers. The other day I found organic hand harvested wild rice on the internet for eight dollars per pound. Even a fraction of that would have been pretty sweet back in my teenage years.
Truth be known, wild rice isn’t true rice at all. It belongs to the genus Zizania. True rice is Oryza sativa. I’m aware of two species of wild rice in Maine. One is perennial (Zizania palustris) and the other is annual (Zizania aquatica).
At this point I’m not sure which species I was dealing with. While patches covered about the same area each year, that in itself doesn’t mean they were perennial. I haven’t been back recently to be able to determine which species I collected.
I doubt many kids today would be interested in harvesting wild rice, but I thought it was pretty cool. Along with hunting, fishing, fly tying, trapping and sports it kept me busy. Those were the days.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (firstname.lastname@example.org).