Wild ricing weathers poor season after torrential rainfall

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BRAINERD, Minn. — The Mississippi is a behemoth, one of the largest rivers in the world with a muscular current to boot, but — at least in the Rice Lake portion of river — the behemoth's liquid surface was as still, tranquil and glossy. Smooth as polished glass.

It was under these conditions, Thursday, Sept. 6, that locals clambered down Green's Point, northeast of Brainerd, and pushed their canoes out into the water. Wild rice harvesting season is underway, and so participants — using little more than canoes, homemade rods, polyester sacks and old-fashioned elbow grease — partook in a practice that has existed, more or less unchanged, on Minnesota water for thousands of years.

Judging by the sentiments of wild ricers and conservation officials alike, 2018 isn't likely to go down as a season people remember fondly.

Cal Rindahl, of Nisswa, has been going out for 61 years — ever since he was 11 years old. He's calling it quits after 11 days on the water. An early end, he said, prompted by poor returns after all the hours he's spent on the lake this season.

"This is the worst year that's going to go down in history, just about," Rindahl said, running his hands through harvested wild rice, which he processes and sells at $10 a pound. "Last year was a bumper year, and the year before was just about as bad as this."

Cheri Zeppelin, media officer for the northwest office of the Minnesota Department of Resources out of Grand Rapids and a wild rice harvester in her spare time, echoed Rindahl.

"This is the worst season I've ever had," she said.

This year's poor crop can be attributed to a series of storms that have rolled through the area, she said, swamping immature wild rice shoots when they're at a vulnerable stage of development.

"With wild rice it's really a timing issue of when there's high water and when there isn't," Zeppelin said. "The way wild rice grows — it germinates every year, it's an annual grain. And the plant has a floating leaf stage, so it's sitting on top of the water. It has a very fine root system. If the water rises while it's in a floating leaf stage, it will uproot.

"Once it stands up, it can handle higher water, but as we had this summer with heavy rainfall, many of these prime lakes were right in the path of thunderstorms."

Minnesota hallmark

Running 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day between Aug. 15 to Sept. 30, the wild rice harvesting season has been a hallmark of the Minnesotan calendar, particularly for Native American communities and participants of all stripes from counties including Aitkin, Cass, Crow Wing and Itasca. These areas boast some of the highest concentrations in a state with more than 1,200 lakes and rivers throughout 54 counties that contain wild rice.

Throughout the day, the wild ricers carefully comb the rice beds, strafing up and down the rows like waterborne combine tractors. Using handcrafted rods that look like supersized drumsticks fashioned from broom handles, the ricers bend the rice shoots over their canoes and whack the grains out.

Then, when 3 p.m. hits, the ricers steer their laden canoes into shore — aluminum hulls filled to the brim with the fruits of their labors, which looks little more than a dense pile of lawn clippings at first glance.

Closer inspection reveals a veritable world of little organisms: Fresh, unprocessed wild rice contains not only grains and torn-up rice plants (as well as blades of grass, aquatic weeds and other unwanted chaff), but also a hive of creepy-crawlies: wriggling rice worms and enough spiders to provide a year's worth of nightmare fuel for any arachnophobe.

And these creepy-crawlies bite, by the way — maybe not spiders, but certainly the worms. Many wild rice harvesters opt to go shirtless while they work, not to catch a nice summer tan, but to avoid trapping rice worms against one's skin where they have a tendency to sink their chompers in, said Tim, who declined to be identified further.

Sporting decades upon decades between the two of them, Tim and his friend, George Hanson, said they're not hauling out as much as they used to.

"We used to be able to pick about 75 pounds an hour," Hanson said. "We're getting less than 30 now."

Hanson said the practice of wild rice harvesting, in terms of popularity, has dwindled down to fractions of what it used to be. The bustling practice brought 30 or so people out to Green's Point each morning into the late '90s. Thursday, Hanson and his partner were the only wild ricers on the water.

Harvesting wild rice isn't what is used to be, Rindahl noted. A shift precipitated in part by fewer young people taking up the practice while its adherents gradually age out, as well as corporatization of wild rice harvest and sales, on top of poor seasons in recent years.

That, Hanson said, is a far cry from his youth. In the '60s and '70s, it was a common (and, with its late August to early September duration, timely) method for students to make a little cash on the side to pay for textbooks and school clothes.

"Everybody used to do it," he said. "There were a few good years. You used to make a week's wages in three hours."