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Wild rice is both food and habitat

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I was again fortunate to live another year longer in order to experience a joyful, eight-day paddle into the heart of Minnesota's Canoe Country -- the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. But this year's trip was a little different from all the others.

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Instead of paddling our crafts within only the bays and along the rocky shorelines of lakes, where of course we did paddle -- Nina Moose, Agnes and Oyster lakes -- we also canoed 20 or more miles of river water -- Moose, Oyster and Boulder rivers. It was a trip full of diverse ecosystems brimming with the unmatched richness of floral and faunal beauty everywhere one looked.

The Canoe Country's rivers, I thought, were a highlight of the trip. Their currents provided us much more than a respite from the wind and waves of big lakes and the long portages around rapids and boulders and beaver dams.

The rivers gave us a sense of intimacy that can only be appreciated on narrow, slow moving rivers buttressed on each bank by a dizzying variety of plant and animal life. It was as if we were canoeing within the lifeblood -- the arteries, the veins -- indeed, if you will, the circulatory system of the Boundary Waters herself as she carried the seeds of life throughout.

For within the stained, yet clean river water, which was teeming with zooplankton and insects and fishes and frogs and birds, were oxygen-giving and food-rich submergent and emergent plants -- cattails, giant bur-reed, pond weed, arrowhead, lilies, water plantain, wild celery and so on. And along the rivers' margins, and often reaching into the deeper parts of the channels and forming beds of large and continuous green swaying grass, was another of the Boundary Waters specialties -- wild rice.

The Ojibwa called the life giving water-grass that migrating waterfowl and a host of other birds and animals rely on for food and cover, "mahnomen" or "manoomin", which means "good berry." So important was this food source to Minnesota's indigenous people that many settlements were established nearby, which were also fiercely defended. After all, the grains of this grass were delectable and nutritious, but only locally abundant.

Declared as Minnesota's official state grain, the good berry is commonly known by most people today as wild rice. No other state has more wild rice than Minnesota, some 15,000 to 30,000 acres in all. In good years, one acre of wild rice can produce 500 pounds of grain.

Native only to North America, wild rice can be found from Manitoba to Florida, but is most plentiful in the Great Lakes region. Growing in large stands or beds across vast wetlands and small patches in lakes and rivers, wild rice is important to people and wildlife alike.

In a way, wild rice is really a misnomer. It's not rice at all, but is actually a grass like wheat, barley, and oats. Growing primarily in water three feet deep or less, wild rice can reach surprisingly tall heights of eight feet and more at maturity. Colored green during the growing season, the plants turn golden as they ripen in late summer and fall with grains of brown gracing the heads.

Though wild rice grows year after year in the same locales when conditions are favorable, the plant is an annual, not a perennial. When ripe grains fall off the plants into the water, they sink to the bottom substrate, lie dormant through the winter and germinate in the spring.

Wild rice has three growth stages: submerged, floating-leaf, and emergent. As a wild rice plant grows, it produces a single root and a single leaf. More leaves appear as the plant reaches for the surface of the water until the tops emerge, floating like green ribbons undulating with the waves or current. As the growing season progresses, stems extend well above the water, seed heads appear and the plants ripen by late August.

The state of Minnesota, as well as certain Native American governments, regulate the harvest of wild rice. Season dates this year run from Aug. 15 to Sept. 30, with harvesting times set from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily. Restrictions include no harvesting of green rice, using watercrafts that do not exceed 18 feet in length and 36 inches in width, push poles limited to only those that are forked, and flails (harvesting sticks) no longer than 30 inches, no heavier than a pound, and must be round and made of wood.

Obviously, there is a reason people harvest or grow wild rice, just as there is a reason great flocks of waterfowl congregate within wild rice stands every autumn: it tastes good and is good for all who eats eat. Wild rice has a delicious, robust nutty flavor, is very high in protein but low in fat, and contains B vitamins, potassium, and phosphorus. Furthermore, wild rice contains antioxidants, which are believed to reduce the risk of cancer in people.

Human recreation and consumption aside, wild rice is an extremely essential wildlife food source that doubly serves as significant cover and brood habitat. Not only can waterfowl feed to their hearts' content, they can do so in the relative safety of the dense stands.

Wild rice, growing in rivers and lakes from Minnesota's Canoe Country and across all of northern Minnesota, is just one more thing to appreciate and experience as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com.

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