By Clark Fair
Over the last century or so, residents of the Kenai Peninsula have taken upon themselves the task of “readjusting” their natural environs beyond the usual methods of road-building, field-clearing and house-erecting.
They have added plants, such as aggressive grass strains, that have overwhelmed terrain and the indigenous species already thriving there. They have moved or introduced new fish populations — grayling and northern pike, for instance — to bodies of water customarily suited to other species or none at all. They have attempted to add or reintroduce new game species — pheasants and chukar and caribou, to name a few.
And it was just such thinking in 1961 that led officials of the Kenai National Moose Range to decide that the refuge lands under their purview might be ideal for the planting of wild rice.
Will Troyer, who served as moose range manager from 1963 to 1968, said that the rice-planting project was well under way when he arrived on the job, and he remembers finding some of the wild rice growing in area lakes. He said that his predecessor, John Hakala, had approved the project in an attempt to enhance local waterfowl numbers.
“They thought they could increase waterfowl production if they could improve the food production,” Troyer said. The equation seemed simple enough, and to that end, a model from Minnesota was selected: Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge in the north-central part of the state.
Rice Lake, the crown jewel of the eponymously named refuge, covers about 4,500 acres and sits approximately 100 miles north of Minneapolis and 60 miles west of the most western tip of Lake Superior. It is a shallow body of water that excels in the production of wild rice — a fact not lost on migratory waterfowl or the resident Native Americans for countless generations.
Wild rice is an annual grass that grows naturally in many northern lakes of Minnesota and Wisconsin. According to John B. Moyle’s “Wild Rice in Minnesota,” published in 1944 in the Journal of Wildlife Management, wild rice grows best in shallow lakes and along streams in water 1 to 3 feet deep. Seeds, buried in the bottom mud since the preceding autumn, germinate in late spring or early summer to produce ribbonlike, submerged leaves.
By midsummer, the leaves grow to float on the water’s surface, and then blossoming stalks begin to emerge and climb skyward. Stalks can rise from 2 to 8 feet above the water, and the rice ripens by late summer or early fall, at which point it must be harvested before the rice seeds drop back into the water and sink into the mud.
The Chippewa (or Ojibwa) people historically harvested (and some still harvest) wild rice from their canoes. They glided into a veritable sea of rice grass and bent the stalks over the open canoes and then used wooden paddles to whack the grass ends and dislodge the rice onto the floors of their boats. When their crafts were full, they paddled to shore, divested themselves of their loads, and then cruised back onto the water for more.
Meanwhile, area waterfowl and a number of mammals and other birds, eager to fatten themselves on the hearty grain, swooped or strolled in to unoccupied rice beds. The most common wildlife species feeding on the wild rice were ducks, geese, American coots, blackbirds, deer, moose, beaver and muskrats.
This successful history of food and wildlife production led Hakala in the fall of 1961 to arrange for a delivery of Rice Lake seed to the Kenai National Moose Range.
On Sept. 27, according to the annual narrative written for the U.S. Department of Interior, 50 pounds of iced wild rice (the augustifolia variety of Zizania aquatica) arrived via air freight in Kenai. Although the ice had melted by the time of the arrival, moose range officials noted that the rice was still in good condition, and they stored it in the cool waters of Longmere Lake until planting began.
By Oct. 3, all of the seed had been planted in 29 preselected locations in and around the moose range. The locations, such as Dolly Varden Lake along the Swanson River Road, had been chosen after a careful sampling of water, climate and soil.
After the planting, moose range officials could only wait and hope.
A brief note in the September-December portion of the 1962 annual narrative was not hopeful: Much of the wild rice planted the previous year had grown, it stated, but the seed had not matured. Officials planned to re-check the planting sites during the next growing season.
The annual narrative the following year, however, was equally unpromising: “The rice emerged in lush stands during the following year (1962)…. Seed heads reached the ‘milk’ stage but did not mature. Checks made this season (1963) revealed only a few stunted stalks of rice in Weed Lake…. The seed did not mature on these plants. These wild rice plantings are considered unsuccessful on the Kenai.”
And the annual narrative for 1964, while laying the rice-planting subject to rest, placed the overall effort in a fuller context and held out the slightest glimmer of hope for future such endeavors:
“Although many nice stands of rice were evident in 1962, no viable seeds were produced. A few plants appeared in 1963 and 1964; however, these are probably from the original seeding. Minnesota and Kenai water and climatic conditions are similar; however, Kenai summers are cooler with temperatures seldom exceeding 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
“Although this variety of wild rice was unsuccessful on the Kenai, there may be other varieties that would work. Wild rice might succeed in Interior Alaska where summer temperatures reach 90 degrees Fahrenheit.”
Two tables attached to the summary revealed the 29 locations, which included Rainbow Lake, Beaver Creek, Sunken Island Lake, Swanson River, Jean Lake and Sports Lake. The tables also noted that 15 of the 29 planting sites had produced “negative” results, while five were rated “good,” six were deemed “fair,” and three were termed “poor.”
Rice stalks in the “good” locations grew initially to heights of 2 to 4 feet, but failed to grow back in the subsequent season. Two of those best-producing locations were in Swan Lake (part of the Swan Lake Canoe System), with two more in Afonasi Lake (near Watson Lake), and one in a spot vaguely labeled “Sedge Pond.”
The planting summary also made clear that, while this rice project had failed, a brief history of similar pre-1964 efforts in Southcentral Alaska had presented an ill omen for the outcome:
Near Palmer, plantings (at an unspecified date) by Bob Walker had rice emerge the first year but none in future years.
In the Kustatan River area (across Cook Inlet from Nikiski) prior to 1960, Robert Smith had tried planting wild rice without success.
Ray Gee, who homesteaded on Douglas Lake in North Kenai in 1959, had planted wild rice enclosed in a ball of mud in 1960. The rice failed to grow.
Prior to the establishment of the moose range, a Mr. Anderson had planted wild rice at Swan Lake in 1936. As would happen with the moose range’s official efforts 25 years later, plants emerged but did not produce seed.
Some things, it appeared, were simply not meant to be.