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Every outdoorsman has the same proverbial itch that is only satisfied by the cool morning air in our lungs, the feel of an antler in our hands and the sound if the pines catching the subtle breeze on a remote mountain side. It seems to be the most prevalent in the Spring, when our minds are fixated on tag applications, drawing odds and the potential that lies ahead in the Fall. It’s also the midpoint between last year’s outings and the next year’s adventures and pursuit of our dream hunts. Maybe this will be the year we draw that coveted tag. Last month, I decided to take a solo combination trip to New Mexico’s Lincoln National Forest in pursuit of a Merriam’s turkey, as well as a foray into shed hunting for elk antlers. My first exposure to both.
Being that I went solo, I chose to stay at a National Forest campground, where I was sure to encounter others with the same objective. After the 11-hour drive, as I pulled into the campground in late afternoon, the first site I encountered was inhabited by a man with a bushy gray beard mulling around the fire, a woman tending a large iron skillet by layering sliced orange bell pepper on top of freshly seared chicken beast, and a young boy admiring a small set of shed mule deer antlers. I couldn’t help but notice the older Ford F-150 with a mountain of antlers in the bed, as well as the beautiful brown set of heavy 5×5 elk antlers laying on the ground beside the tent. “This is a man I need to talk to.”, was my first thought.
I quickly set up my tent at my site and readied my gear for a late afternoon hike to scout the area. Before heading out, I stopped by the bearded man’s campsite.
“You look like you know your way around these mountains.”, I said, which was the start of a 20-minute conversation with a man named Ellis who is a genuinely passionate outdoorsman and loves every minute he gets to spend on the mountain in search of “brown gold”.
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That brown gold is worth about $15 per pound at today’s rate. With the average elk antler weighing 7 pounds, each one is a $100 bill laying on the ground, waiting for someone to claim it. The picturesque 6×6 bulls that you see adorning social media pages of devote elk hunters shed antlers that are in excess of 10 pounds. Ellis’ heaviest elk shed over his career was a 12-pound antler. He’s found several Boone & Crocket elk sets during his time, and his largest single day haul is 23 individual elk sheds. What he doesn’t sell to market buyers, which most likely ends up in the dog chew isle of your local pet supply store, he utilizes for his craft, creating coat racks, chandeliers and other unique items for sale. However, he doesn’t do it for the money. He’s learned to live off his social security in retirement. A modest man, he proudly stated that his new shirt and britches were purchased with his recent stimulus check. He bought a new pair of boots as well, but soon after gave those to a friend in need. Ellis shed hunts for a much more material reason. It connects him with the past, delivers a sense of belonging, and most meaningfully, gives him purpose to live. It’s his salvation.
Ellis is a 67-year-old Vietnam Veteran, who has had a difficult life to say the least. He sets up camp in mid to late February and stays through early-May. He has been shed hunting these mountains for over 30 years, and has an impressive history as a hunting guide and mule skinner earlier in his life. He goes out alone in search of dropped antlers several times a week, but he wasn’t always alone. His son, step-brother and best friend all used to accompany him. Tragically, both his son and step-brother were lost by separate instances of sudden, unexplainable suicide, and his best friend was killed after falling asleep drunk behind the wheel a week after Ellis had confronted him about his excessive drinking. Ellis, struggling to cope with the mental strain of such loss and tragedy, tried every prescription drug and therapy in modern medical practice, but they all failed to bring peace to his soul.
He began spending more and more time alone on the mountains, wandering for days, spending nights rolled up in a tarp on the forest floor. Truth be told, he didn’t care if he lived or died. He was searching for more than sheds. He was searching for answers by walking the same mountains our ancestors did for centuries prior, and reliving his past memories on these mountains with those he lost. He prayed to the stars, the rivers, the trees and the land, asking the spirit to guide and heal his soul. He prayed for a teacher of the old ways and was soon rewarded by being taken in by the Lakota Native American tribe. He gave up Christianity, learned the ways of the Lakota, was invited to participate in rituals and became known as a “Wocekiye”, or medicine man for his ability to find medicinal herbs on the mountain. On this mountain he feels a connection to those that were lost. “Brother!” he calls out to the eagle overhead, “Help me out! Where are the sheds?”. Undoubtedly, he’s an eccentric man with a brutally raw honesty and simple drive that is refreshing in today’s world.
After I returned from my scouting trip in the early evening, he invited me to accompany him the next day on a journey to a place he hadn’t been to in 5 or 6 years that he predicted would hold several sheds. It was a haul, about 3-4 miles in, up and down 2 rojas before we even started shed hunting. After an unsuccessful turkey hunt in the morning, I lightened my pack to the necessities and headed out with Ellis into the mountains. The conversation was constant for the first 3.5 miles. He told me that he had a dream the night before that I’d find a shed in the first 20 minutes once we cut a trail. He told stories about elk guiding, shed hunting, bear encounters, his personal life. Some were happy, others tragic, and a few amusing.
He said he doesn’t invite just anyone to join him on these outings. He’s had several people quit on him due to the physical demands. He laughs at how easily people give up when things get tough. “They quit before they even try!”, he says. Before the age of smart phones, he used to carry a disposable camera with him to document the places he had been and the sights he had seen, because people wouldn’t believe his stories. At the 3.5 mile mark, we climbed out of a dry creek bed and rested under a mature juniper tree in the cool shade. As I gave my body some much needed nutrition and hydration, I told Ellis the hike in was harder than I expected. “Are you going to be OK?”, he asked as he raised an eyebrow. “Oh, yeah. I’m good.”, I said. “Good.”, he responded, as he puffed his cigarette and cocked a smile. “Because a helicopter can’t land here, and I’m not carrying you out.”
We gathered our gear and headed up the mountain side, walking along the elk game trails. We paralleled each other about 20-30 yards apart side-hilling the mountain through a fairly dense covering of mountain mahogany. On the shady side (North side) of the mountain, it was noticeably greener and the scent of elk that were feeding on the mahogany not too long ago still hung in the air. This was a very promising spot. One challenge, is that it has been a dry year, and the dry creek bed we used for easy access, is preferred to be wet by the elk. The dryness, likely meant that the elk didn’t spend as much time here as Ellis had hoped, which meant less potential for sheds. Sure enough, just as Ellis had dreamed, within 20 minutes I found a 5-point chalk elk shed partially buried in the hillside. Chalk sheds (older, weathered sheds) aren’t worth as much as the fresh brown sheds, but they still have market value. I gave it to Ellis as a thank you for inviting me along.
We continued making our way up the mountain by side-hilling back and forth, gaining elevation, walking the elk trails and searching for sheds. We crested a roja, now on the sunny side of the mountain and worked our way around the basin to the East and South, in the general direction of camp. Ellis worked ahead of me a hundred yards and got to a shade tree on a saddle to break for lunch. I continued to work the side of the basin and was nearly startled when I first noticed the brown antler at my feet tangled in cholla cactus. The main beam was broken at the base of the 4th point, or sword, as it’s known. After extracting it from the cholla, feeling the texture of the antler in my hand, catching the scent of it in my nostrils and holding it up to the sky to admire was like a shot of adrenaline. I wanted to climb every mountain in sight in search of more! I called out to Ellis, and he hollered back, “Yahoo!”. He genuinely loves the thrill of finding sheds.
We then slowly picked our way down the mountain, back to the main trail, continuing our search for sheds. We hiked a couple of more miles back to camp, and enjoyed the feel of ice-cold mountain water on our faces and the back of our necks at the last stream crossing before camp, as a reward for the hard day. We covered 7.5 miles and roughly 2,000 feet in elevation gain in 8 hours, over loose, rocky terrain, steep slopes and vegetation that lives to stab, poke and cut anything that dares get too close. It was inspirational to see a 67-year-old man complete that journey, and gave me optimism that I have a solid 25 years ahead of me to enjoy the mountains, if I play my cards right.
Late that afternoon, back at camp, with aching joints, sore muscles and a sense of accomplishment, Ellis said, “In my younger days, I’d still be up there. Heck, with this moon, I might keep going all night. Antlers seem to almost glow under the moonlight, especially the white ones.”
Before the sun set that evening, I stopped by at a petroglyph site in the vicinity. This one was made by an American Indian civilization approximately 600 years ago to which there are no known descendants. As I walked the trail at the end of a hard day on the mountain and admired the drawings with the sun sinking towards the horizon, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Doug Duren’s saying, “It’s not ours, it’s just our turn.” In that moment, never had that felt truer.
In closing, I’m glad that I stopped at Ellis’ campground on the first day, and I hope to join him on the trail next year. He’s a reminder of the good and healing effect that comes from connecting with nature. What modern medicine failed to deliver to Ellis, mother nature has been providing for millions of years. The answers are more often than not right in front of us. We just have to slow down and look, which is becoming increasingly difficult as society accelerates its pace of life and moves away from nature. Use every opportunity you have to venture out with friends and family, and remember, we have the obligation to preserve and protect it for future generations so that they too can benefit.