Tuesday, October 11, 2005


"Bumper Crop" Of Wild Rice!

"BB-r-r-r-iii-i-i-i-n-nnn-nn-g-gg-ggggg!!!!" The phone in the Flight Shack just about jumped off the desk. I was flying out of Little Grand Rapids, and it was Fall, 1987. Stalwart pilot and unquestionable "lady's man" Gerry Zylich answered the phone. "Hello!" Gerry answered. He listened for a couple of moments, said "OK", and passed me the phone. "It is Judas", he said, "and the rice is ready to pick, and he wants to fly out."

Judas Owen was an elder from Pauingassi, and an outstanding trapper, hunter, and rice-picker. He was raised at a "purer" time in the history of the local aboriginal people, and knew things that would amaze you. A man that would walk 50 miles to get home through dense bush, crossing rivers and creeks, in the dead of winter, and consider it a normal part of life. His trapping skills were unbelievable, and every year he harvested numerous beautiful furs. Even 18 years ago in this area, trapping was a very good, healthy activity for the Native people to engage in, giving them the chance to be self-reliant, and have a sense of worth. The "tree-huggers", bleeding-heart liberals, and city folk, have since seen to it that one of the last meager industries that the Native people could use to support themselves has been decimated. Anyways, "Oh yeah, Judas' phone call!"

"Hello Judas, how are you?" I queried. "Heh-heh-heh-heh-heh, I'm good, good." Judas was always laughing. "Me and my family want to fly out to Harrop Lake and pick rice, it is ready." "OK, when do you want to go?" I asked. "Today, 1 o'clock, pick us up in Pauingassi by Fishing Lake Store." Judas replied. "1 o'clock it is, Judas, see you then," I said. "Right on", I thought, as I loved flying the trappers, rice-pickers, and hunters around. Apparently a couple of male members of Judas' family had canoed down the Poplar River to the rice fields a couple of days earlier, and using an HF radio, had called in to say the rice was ready, so now Judas would go also. Gerry "Don Juan" Zylich and I prepped the Beaver, C-GJJG, and the C-180, CF-LDW, as Judas would need both airplanes.

One o'clock arrived, and Gerry and I were both already tied up in Pauingassi. Judas and his family were on time, and in short order had all their gear on the docks.

JJG tied to Fishing Lake Store dock in Pauingassi, September, 1987.  Posted by Picasa

JJG, with canoe tied on, awaits the rest of the gear for Harrop Lake, including Pampers, flour, lard, canned goods, 10 gal. drum of gas, hand-carved paddle, and a 30-30 rifle. Posted by Picasa

Gerry and I were soon loaded and airborne, heading northwest for Harrop Lake. Actually, the rice field wasn't on Harrop Lake itself, but on the first shallow lake upstream on the Poplar River, but Judas considered it part of Harrop. As we arrived and surveyed the lake, I couldn't believe the amount of rice. It would be like landing in a sparse wheat field. Rocks are easy to find at a rice lake, as the rice won't grow where the rock is, obviously, and you have an open patch of water where the rock or reef is. Also, steering in a rice lake is maddening, as your water rudders drag the rice stalks, and you cannot turn out of wind. Today the winds were light, which was a good thing. I found the camp, saw the two boys awaiting us, picked my landing spot, and "greased" onto the surface. Success, as I didn't hit any rocks, as rice lakes are very shallow. I taxied straight into shore and shut-down, and got out onto the float. The float nudged the rock shoreline, and I jumped off.

JJG nosed-in to shore, and passengers unloaded. Boy, the rice is thick! Posted by Picasa

I heeled JJG around to unload the canoe and the rest of the gear. Also, it would be easier to drive away when I left due to the steering problems caused by the thick rice. Posted by Picasa

LDW arrives, and taxis through the thick rice. Posted by Picasa

We haven't seen rice like this in years! Posted by Picasa

LDW arrives at shore, and the passengers deplane. Judas Owen is the man in the foreground. Posted by Picasa

Then, Gerry and I finish unloading JJG. Posted by Picasa

JJG completely unloaded, Gerry rests on the horizontal "stab". Posted by Picasa

LDW behind a "meat-drying rack", and a wild rice harvester. The harvester would be tied between 2 canoes, and the canoes propelled by paddle, or 2 small "kickers" (small HP outboards). On the left of the harvester in the photo, if you look closely, is a home-made hand-crank. This would turn a paddle-wheel above the header. As the canoe moved through the rice, someone would turn the crank, and the paddle-wheel would knock the ripe rice kernels into the header, which would later be bagged. It was critical to make sure the paddle-wheel bottom knocked the rice "rearward" into the "header".  Posted by Picasa

Before we left, Judas showed me "supper". The boys in camp had caught and saved a few Northern Pike, as they knew they had company coming. When traveling, trapping, or rice-picking, Northern Pike was many times the preferred fish for consumption, as when the water is cool, pike flesh is denser, and stays in your belly longer. Also, look at the thickness of the rice behind Judas! Posted by Picasa

I arrive back in October, 2005, and a smile is still on my lips. It sure used to be enjoyable doing the trapper and rice-picker work. Alas, both are industries in severe trouble, if non-existent, as far as the Native people are concerned. By the way, Judas is still alive, and so is Gerry, and everyone else in the photos. The rice field at Harrop has never again since 1987 seen a crop like that year. Looking at the pictures, I still find it hard to believe how much rice was actually there, all naturally re-occurring.

Well, time to go, just a memory that popped into my mind this Fall when this year's rice crop failed, thought I would share it, hope you enjoy the photos. Judas and crew had many loads of rice, shot a couple of moose, killed some ducks and geese, fished, and had a great time living off of the land, and after paying for their aircraft charters, had money left. A tremendous lifestyle if you ask me, all "fading to black". Too bad.


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