Rumor had it that the Washington region abounds with wild rice, that prince of side dishes with the princely price.
"It's true," said Dr. Gene M. Silberhorn of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. "I know there are extensive stands in the Maryland freshwater marshes, and I have measured and mapped hundreds of acres of it along the Potomac, Rappahannock, Pamunkey and Mattaponi. It's the same species Zizania aquatica they harvest in Michigan and Minnesota, and every bit as fine eating."
"Hot damn!" I said. "Tell me where it is and I'll slip out and get me a canoeful."
The telephone crackled through a pause. "It isn't quite that simple," Silberhorn siad. "There aren't that many grains on any one head, and the redwing blackbirds pick most of the stands pretty clean. I have spent a pretty full day gathering enough to serve a family of four at two or three meals."
"Well, I'll just do like the Indians: spread a tarp in the canoe and thrash right through it. The rice ought to fall like rain."
"I don't think you've quite got the picture. Come on down to Gloucester Point and join my graduate students on a field trip to the Pamunkey. We should find a fair amount of wild rice, and you'll see what I mean."
Sweethall Marsh, a few miles above the vast Westvaco paper mill at West Point, was "looking awful drab for just past the peak of the season," Silberhorn said as he surveyed the winding channels and guts for the lighter, fresher shade of green that at a distance distinguishes wild rice from cordgrass. Drought had dimished the freshwater flow so much that saltwater had advanced far upriver, putting heavy stress on a plant community adapted to light salinity.
The rice stands he had been watching for years were gone, but he finally found a patch of several acres, much farther back from the water than usual. It looked very like a giant's lawn gone to seed, with the grass six feet high. i
"This doesn't look too badly picked over by the birds," he said, threshing out a few grains in his palm. "They usually clean it up before it's half ripe.I would say this is a week or so short of being ready, so around Washington it should be harvestable in the latter part of September."
Silberhorn sent me home with a stack of the Potomac tidal marsh inventories VIMS has published, with wild rice and a score of other plants pinpointed down to the 10th of an acre. Neabsco Creek just south of Woodbridge seemed the most promising, with 68.7 acres of rice shown.
Just after turning off U.S. 1 onto Neabsco Road I saw it, rippling gently in the breeze that had come with the dawn. Wild rice as far as the eye could see, growing almost up to the bank. Seven great white herons stood in the shallows, preening and spreading their wings to the sun, a sight that normally would have held me all day, but so eager was I for my bushels of rice that I paddled right on past, sending them squawking and lumbering into the air.
As the bow drove into the edge of the rice a muskrat leapt straight into the the air, squeaking, but it hardly registered as I grabbed at the rice and knocked the heads against the thwart. Nothing fell into the spread poncho but a few shreds of chaff. Not one rice plant in view carried a single grain. I paddled along the margins of the stand, heading in here and there, but never found more than a grain or two. Several times wood ducks came boiling and peeping up, one so close her wingtip brushed my ear, and in a shallow channel I found myself briefly aground on a great sluggish carp.
If the edges of the great stand had been gleaned, surely there would be rice in the interior. It took several minutes to slog a few yards into the stand; suddenly the sky was full of twittering blackbirds, so many that the sound of their wings was like wind in a pine wood. Another step and I sank to my chest in muck, at which point I remembered a friend's recommendation that I take along snowshoes. Freshwater marshes tend to be much softer than the salt marshes I am familiar with.
Grabbing rice stalks to make a supporting mat, I inched back through the sucking glop on my belly, not failing to notice that none of the plants I was sweeping under me in great armfuls bore any grains. In Louisiana the redwing blackbird is known as the ricebird, so adept is it at balancing on the slender stalks while gobbling every grain.
In Quantico Creek there was less rice and even more blackbirds. Powell's Creek, Aquia Creek, Potomac Creek, all had been picked clean.
Between dawn and dark I gathered less than a cup of rice, which tasted so good raw that I ate every grain, but it was far from a fruitless day. All the upper Potomac marshes, although so surrounded by development that houses and highways are usually in sight, abound with wildlife. I rousted half a dozen beavers, paddled right over an otter, was ignored by a bald eagle and inspected by an osprey, and shared a sandwich with a king rail who did not seem to realize he was in season. He was as bold as a pet chicken, permitting me every liberty short of picking him up, and had an unnatural passion for mustard-coated cheese.
There were standoffish blue herons and a pugnacious green heron, and a snapping turtle so heavy and slippery with algae that I fell out of the canoe trying to haul him into it.
On the way home I checked a couple of markets to see what wild rice is going for these days. The quotations ranged from $13 to $20 a pound, depending upon the store, the package size, and the tribe that gathered it. Now I am pricing snowshoes.