Come November 22nd this year, discriminating families at Thanksgiving tables will sit up – unawares – to turkey stuffed with the makings of an epic and delectable tale. It is the tale of ‘manoomin’, the sacred wild rice that grows across northern Wisconsin, Minnesota, and the prairie provinces of Canada. Stand on the cat-tail fringes of Hole-in-the-Day Lake north of Brainerd, MN as our family did this year, and you are near ground zero of what gives this story buzz.
Having traveled north from Georgia, we outfitted ourselves with the traditionally prescribed gear for harvesting the precious rice: state licenses ($37), canoes, ‘knockers’ (for removing the grain from the heads), and duck-footed poles to push the canoes through the shallows and lily pads where the rice grows. Then, with maps in hand, we went in search of what locals could tell us about where to find those beds of rice. That insider info was hard to come by. Some told us their uncles or grandparents had avidly harvested the rice, but that they had only the vaguest notions of where. Some seemed cagey because of their own designs on the rice. But a neighborly former state official, Dave Mick, and his chum Nate gave up details on the juiciest spots, though adding, “It may still be early to harvest.”
One of those spots, Hole-in-the-Day Lake, has baggage. Kevin, who we found tinkering with a van bested by an errant deer, told us the lake had ‘history’. Hard to get to, he said. Swampy, ringed with cat-tails. He took us up the road to John in a darkened garage, looking for all the world like the original north woods hacker, face illuminated by a greasy laptop and fussing over the chassis of an ATV that had come to north country grief . No way, Jose, he opined.
Last of all we stopped at the lumberyard. There the backstory began to peek out from behind the curtains. Hole-in-the-Day (the Younger), 19th cent. chief among the Ojibwe, had stood off attempts to corral the tribes onto reservations. It seems he was assassinated for his trouble. Three seasons ago, it was said, tribal activists had chosen this place of legendary name to assert their rights. They brazenly took to harvesting the abundant rice without requisite permits in the hope of provoking arrest by the authorities and believing such a case would ultimately vindicate their 1855 treaty rights to fish, hunt and harvest rice where they pleased.
But we had no treaty rights. Nor the cheek. And the lumberyard heavies reckoned that barging on to Hole-in-the-Day lake – sacred though it might be to the memory of the tribes – would only serve to decorate our rap sheets. We decamped meekly to look for happier turf.
The map took us north to Rice Lake where we launched our canoes and found ourselves in a rich bed of rice. But close examination showed that the heads of grain were green – far from mature. That harvest would be at least two weeks away. As we paddled the perimeter, a pair of geese lifted off the open water, circling overhead and winging away to the north. We paused mid-lake to have sandwiches and muse. And followed the geese northward.
‘Northward’ brought us to the verges of Pine River, a tributary of the Mississippi, where a landing jutted out into the stream. From that vantage point, all along the river’s edge and far upstream, we could see tantalizing stands of rice. All of it achingly green. A crusty local resident, Sally, complained that the rice was as thick as she had seen it in 20 years. ‘A nuisance for my pontoon,’ she explained. And then offered the unsolicited advice that her greedy neighbor, whose favorite saying was, “Another day in paradise!’, actually merited the retort, “Another thief in paradise.”
We have returned to our haunts in Georgia. If we should be so lucky as to have that exquisite wild rice stuffing at our Thanksgiving table this year, it will only be because savvy family have ordered it on line for $14 per pound. But as the autumn wind whistles by our eaves, we will dream of the bounty of a rich ‘manoomin’ harvest that awaits.