Air­boats used to gather wild rice

Trac­ing the jour­ney from pris­tine north­ern lakes to the din­ner plate

Saskatoon StarPhoenix - - FRONT PAGE - JENN SHARP

Af­ter a day of howl­ing winds and an over­cast sky, the sud­den still­ness at sun­set was al­most star­tling.

The sun be­gan to de­scend to­ward the hori­zon over Meey­omoot Lake in north­ern Saskatchewan. Rays of light poked through the clouds and coloured the sky burnt orange, pink and yel­low.

The Muir­head fam­ily had been at the ready all af­ter­noon, wait­ing for the wind to die down, so they could get back out on the wa­ter and con­tinue har­vest­ing wild rice.

It’s an un­con­ven­tional har­vest­ing scene — light­weight alu­minum air­boats glid­ing over the wa­ter’s sur­face and a buzz boat wait­ing to col­lect the har­vest — and a vi­tal part of the prov­ince’s north­ern econ­omy.

Apart from wild rice’s de­li­cious nutty flavour and nu­tri­tious value, a mar­ket­ing story of sus­tain­abil­ity has helped make it pop­u­lar all over the world.

The story is true: Wild rice is an or­ganic food source grown in har­mony with na­ture. Har­vesters go to great lengths to en­sure Saskatchewan’s pris­tine north­ern wa­ters stay that way.

The Muir­heads are some of the in­dus­try’s new­est ar­rivals and are work­ing to cre­ate a more ro­bust lo­cal mar­ket for the high-fi­bre grain.

A FAM­ILY AF­FAIR

Larissa and Chase Muir­head took over a long-stand­ing wild rice op­er­a­tion on Meey­omoot Lake with Chase’s fam­ily. Both are north­ern­ers through and through, born in La Ronge. Nei­ther would dream of liv­ing any­where else.

They have ca­reers in non-agri­cul­tural sec­tors, but when the wild rice op­por­tu­nity came, they jumped at the chance.

More than 30 years ago, Lynn Riese ob­tained a lease to har­vest wild rice from Meey­omoot and sev­eral smaller lakes in the area just east of Prince Al­bert Na­tional Park. (Riese also ex­ports wild rice via his com­pany, Riese’s Cana­dian Lake Wild Rice.) Pro­vin­cial reg­u­la­tions stipulate that only north­ern res­i­dents can hold leases on lakes where wild rice grows.

Riese and his fam­ily built a camp on an is­land at Meey­omoot — the area can be ac­cessed only by plane — and ac­quired all the nec­es­sary har­vest­ing equip­ment.

Riese wanted to pass along the busi­ness to an­other fam­ily and ap­proached long­time friend Garth Muir­head, Chase’s fa­ther.

While the Muir­heads didn’t have an agri­cul­tural back­ground, they wanted to try. In 2015, the fam­ily be­gan a two-year crop-shar­ing agree­ment with Riese to learn the ropes; Against the Grain Or­ganic Wild Rice was born.

The Muir­heads got lucky. Those were the high­est yield­ing years for rice in a long time.

“So (we) got stars in (our) eyes,” Larissa said. “You re­ally see what a year can be like when the weather is right, and the rice is grow­ing (well).”

But then — typ­i­cal in agri­cul­ture — that high was fol­lowed by an ex­treme low.

“Our first year on our own was the worst year on record.”

That first year was tough for other rea­sons, too.

In­dus­tri­ous beavers dropped six trees on the camp, de­stroy­ing two har­vesters and sev­eral cab­ins. A plow wind tore apart a buzz boat. The docks washed away in a storm.

“It was pretty in­ter­est­ing to go through all of the re­ally bad things in one year,” Larissa laughed.

Fam­ily mem­bers, in­clud­ing Chase’s brother and his fam­ily, take turns work­ing dur­ing the har­vest sea­son, from late Au­gust to Oc­to­ber. Some­times, the whole clan lives at camp to­gether.

“For us, this is a fam­ily af­fair,” Larissa said.

The camp is full of laugh­ter and ca­ma­raderie. Larissa and Chase’s young daugh­ter, Vi­o­let, loves camp life, play­ing with her cousins and im­mers­ing her­self in na­ture.

“It’s a great place to raise a kid and have them out here. It means a lot,” Larissa said.

Our first year on our own was the worst.… It was pretty in­ter­est­ing to go through all of the re­ally bad things in one year.

A Cessna 180 float plane came with the camp, and they hire a pilot each sea­son for flights dur­ing har­vest.

Chase also has his pilot’s li­cence, so in the off-time, the cou­ple ex­plores is­lands in the area, for­ag­ing wild foods. Larissa is an apothe­carist, skilled at us­ing north­ern plants for health reme­dies.

The area’s bounty is al­most hard to be­lieve. The hill on one is­land was peach-coloured from all the chanterelle mush­rooms grow­ing. Other spots over­flowed with blue­ber­ries and cran­ber­ries.

The camp is­land, like all the rest, is full of fir trees and bush. The Cessna floats in the wa­ter, teth­ered to a small dock on the shore­line. The plane does triple duty as a ride for peo­ple, pro­vi­sions and wild-rice trans­port.

The camp is a rugged, rus­tic af­fair of sim­ple log cab­ins, all heated by wood-burn­ing stoves. One cabin dou­bles as the cook­house, a propane-fu­elled stove and small coun­ter­top the only space to pre­pare meals for up to 10.

A big cof­fee ket­tle sits at the ready, es­pe­cially on those cold nights when the crew comes in wet and chilled to the bone from har­vest­ing.

There’s a small shower room (which, thanks to a gen­er­a­tor, has hot wa­ter), an out­house and a shed full of tools. To be a wild rice har­vester one must also be adept at me­chan­ics. There’s no way for the har­vest­ing equip­ment to leave the lake when re­pairs are needed.

It’s hard work. There’s stress about what yields will be like each year, and about break­downs and the weather. Added to that is all the plan­ning that goes into liv­ing and feed­ing peo­ple in a re­mote area.

Larissa said she never en­vi­sioned her hus­band as a farmer, but has wit­nessed a huge change in him.

“When (I) see Chase (com­ing in on) the har­vester af­ter a big day, the smile on his face is just price­less.”

FROM LAKE TO PLATE

Wild rice, a grass plant that orig­i­nated in the Great Lakes re­gion, is North Amer­ica’s only na­tive ce­real crop. Saskatchewan’s cli­mate and soil limit agri­cul­tural op­por­tu­ni­ties in the north, but shal­low lakes and slow-mov­ing rivers that formed on the an­cient rocks of the Pre­cam­brian shield are an ideal habi­tat for wild rice.

Ac­cord­ing to a Univer­sity of Saskatchewan pub­li­ca­tion, north­ern en­trepreneurs who in­vested time and re­sources were re­spon­si­ble for the now flour­ish­ing in­ter­na­tional trade in the prov­ince’s wild rice.

The plant was in­tro­duced to Saskatchewan in the 1930s to pro­vide food for muskrats and wa­ter­fowl, en­hanc­ing hunt­ing and trap­ping op­por­tu­ni­ties. The com­mer­cial in­dus­try took off in the late 1970s.

Be­fore pro­pel­ler-driven air­boats were in­tro­duced, peo­ple used ca­noes for har­vest­ing. One per­son sat in front and pad­dled, while the sec­ond bent stalks over the boat’s side with a short, ta­pered stick and used an­other stick to tap off the rice.

Mod­ern har­vesters (most of which are hand­made) have wide, flat-bot­tomed alu­minum hulls fit­ted with col­lect­ing trays. As the har­vester moves through the rice stands, rice grains hit an an­gled screen on the header and fall into the tray.

Af­ter sev­eral passes, the har­vester dumps the tray into a buzz boat.

The rice is shov­elled by hand into bags, which are later taken to the dock for air trans­port to the main­land (up to 10 flights a day at the height of har­vest­ing).

A bus later takes the bagged rice to a pro­cess­ing plant in La Ronge.

Jeanne Gress man­ages the La Ronge Wild Rice Cor­po­ra­tion. At a mod­est fa­cil­ity on the edge of town, wild rice is fin­ished, cured, dried and bagged be­fore it goes to ex­port com­pa­nies.

“It’s a won­der­ful prod­uct (and) it has a lot of nu­tri­tional value,” she said.

Wild rice is sought af­ter else­where in the world, but the high-fi­bre grain isn’t a sta­ple at many Saskatchewan din­ner ta­bles.

“As peo­ple get more fa­mil­iar with it, it’ll catch on,” said Larissa, who posts recipes on Against the Grain’s Face­book page. “But peo­ple just ei­ther don’t know about it or aren’t re­ally aware of how healthy it is.”

Like much of the wild rice grown in north­ern Saskatchewan, the Muir­heads’ crop is cer­ti­fied or­ganic and re­quires min­i­mal in­puts. Re-seed­ing is nec­es­sary only when it’s been wiped out by fluc­tu­at­ing wa­ter lev­els.

The fam­ily keeps a por­tion of its har­vest each year and mar­kets it through­out Saskatchewan un­der their own la­bel. The rest is ex­ported in­ter­na­tion­ally.

MAGIC IN THE AIR

Meey­omoot Lake is a mag­i­cal place. Aside from the camp, it’s a part of Saskatchewan seem­ingly un­touched by hu­man­ity.

Tow­er­ing fir trees on nearby shore­lines are set off by green stands of wild rice in the sparkling blue wa­ter.

Wildlife is abun­dant here — geese, ducks, moose, muskrats, beavers, deer, fish and per­haps the odd black bear. (Larissa’s hand­i­work in the out­house is re­quired bath­room read­ing for new­com­ers to camp: steps out­lin­ing what to do if you en­counter a bear.)

“You know there’s some­thing about this place as soon as you get here; it just grabs you,” she said.

She’s right. Even though it’s a short plane ride to the clos­est grid road, it feels thou­sands of miles away from civ­i­liza­tion.

The sun dis­ap­peared on the hori­zon as Chase moved the har­vester through the rice stands, golden rays high­light­ing his face.

He and his fam­ily have found their happy place — a spot that also pro­vides nu­tri­tious, sus­tain­able food to thou­sands all over the world.

As peo­ple get more fa­mil­iar with it, it’ll catch on … peo­ple just ei­ther don’t know about it or aren’t re­ally aware of how healthy it is.

PHO­TOS: RICHARD MARJAN

Chase and Larissa Muir­head jumped at the op­por­tu­nity to farm wild rice in the prov­ince’s north. Their daugh­ter, Vi­o­let, loves spend­ing the grow­ing sea­son at camp, play­ing with her cousins and ex­plor­ing na­ture. The rice op­er­a­tion, a gen­uine fam­ily af­fair, has seen its ups and downs over the years.

Sacks of wild rice are loaded by bush pilot Joel Cook onto a plane at Mon­treal Lake. Pro­vin­cial reg­u­la­tions stipulate that only north­ern res­i­dents can hold leases on lakes where wild rice grows.

RICHARD MARJAN

A buzz boat waits for a har­vester to de­liver an­other load of wild rice on Lake Meey­omoot. The rice is then shov­elled by hand into sacks and loaded onto a float plane.

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