I will never tire of writing about how special Minnesota is. There is something about this state that checks all the boxes for me. Anybody who thinks I will eventually run out of new adventures, new places to explore, or new ways to enrich my life in this state will have to think again. Take this Labor Day weekend as proof.
We left Duluth on Saturday afternoon and drove west up Route 2 to Grand Rapids, then set out north on state highway 38 (Edge of the Wilderness Scenic Byway). From there we drove some gravel roads out to Cottonwood Lake Campground in the Bowstring State Forest. This gem of a campground was a place I had never even heard of after five years of researching campgrounds and places to explore in northeast Minnesota… Just the DNR website description alone made me want to go there: “This is a pretty remote area.” Cottonwood turned out to be one of the best Minnesota campgrounds I’ve stayed in yet.
We were invited to this specific campground by my friend John. The purpose of his stay at Cottonwood was to have a base camp for his wild ricing operation. For much of these two weeks, John and his friends are harvesting wild rice on the Mississippi River. And if it was hard for me before to imagine what ricing in Minnesota is about, I can now say that I’ve done it myself. My kids as well. It was amazing.
Before we ever got to the wild rice fields though, we had Saturday night together at the campground. We were eight people for dinner that night, and I grilled chicken on the open fire and cooked wild rice (store bought) in my new pressure cooker, given to me by my friend Sean. This amazing cooking tool was made at the Rashkobaba foundry in Afghanistan. I cooked us two cups of wild rice in 16 minutes right in the campfire. The Rashkobaba is truly a fabulous camp cooking tool. I haven’t even brought my gas stove on my last two camping trips. No need to when I bring my Dutch woodstove and now Afghani pressure cooker.
Dinner came out fabulous, and the experience of cooking with such a hand-made Afghani pot in the Minnesota wilds made it even better.
We got up early on Sunday morning, and drove to Cohasset, MN for ricing. First I stopped in Deer River to buy my first-ever wild ricing permit. There are some interesting regulations to ricing. The season is August 15 to September 30, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily. Watercraft used in harvesting wild rice may not exceed 18 feet in length or 36 inches in maximum width. Push poles used to propel watercraft for harvesting wild rice must be forked at the end. The forks must be less than 12 inches in length. Flails used to harvest wild rice must be made of round, smooth wood no longer than 30 inches and weigh no more than one pound. Flails must be hand held and operated.
Basically, the wild rice harvest in Minnesota is completely non-mechanized, transporting you back to a time when you earned your food with hard work and sweat.
When we got to the downtown Cohasset boat launch on the Mississippi, we were greeted by huge fields of rice growing in every direction. There was an absolutely incredible bounty of rice there for harvesting. Rice was growing everywhere, up and down the river bank, for miles.
We set out, and were in rice in minutes. We all got to take turns flailing, and it’s an incredible feeling to see the rice falling into the boat, kernel after kernel. The more your flail, the more rice you get. I also got to try poling, which is incredibly demanding. You don’t use oars or paddles or a motor to move the boat. Instead, to get any forward momentum, you need to push off bottom with a 25-ft wooden pole. It’s extremely tiring. There is an incredible underwater mass of rice plants and weeds that inhibit poling and create drag on the boat.
After working an hour and a half, we were definitely ready for a lunch break. We got tangible results from our labor, and it was an incredible feeling to go back to the launch with rice in our boat.
With so much rice to be had everywhere around you, it’s just a matter of keeping up the intensity to get as much rice as you want. With dedication, you could get a whole boat full in a day. The Natives we saw everywhere around us were getting their boats full in the allotted 6 hours.
I was proud of Vanessa and Adriana. They gave their all at ricing that morning, and they clearly know how it’s harvested now. They’ve done it.
For children, this is the ultimate way to see where their food comes from. And it comes from fresh water in Minnesota.
For me, our haul of rice was not the key. The important part was experiencing this tradition ourselves, and taking part in it.
In the afternoon the girls and I went out in my canoe to explore the Mississippi some more and try fishing. The whole time, the girls begged me to take them back into the rice to touch it, feel it, and play with it.
The rest of the weekend was spent fishing, cooking, playing in camp, and bicycling.
This was another fine trip that concluded an absolutely sensational summer of outdoors living. I am constantly aware how lucky we are to live here.