UNDISCLOSED LOCATION — Will Staats made me swear to keep the location of our moose antler hunt a secret. Then he made me swear again. By the third time, I was a tad annoyed, roughly the same tad of annoyance I had felt when the 64-year-old retiree asked me, several times over the phone from his home in northern Vermont, if I would be able to keep up with him on our hike. I am in my mid-40s, in mid-shape, and much closer to being fired than retired, thank you very much.
I was wrong. You probably saw that coming, but I assure you that you cannot believe just how very wrong I was. And that is because Will Staats is not just the premier moose shed hunter in New England; he is also the greatest athlete I have ever met. This isn’t me telling the truth with some stretchers. This is a fact, and it is the last thing I thought this story would be about.
Here’s what I thought it would be about: moose antlers, and the increasingly competitive world of “shed hunters,” those who search for the giant antlers on the forest floor after the male moose “shed” them each winter. A fresh brown antler can fetch upwards of $16 a pound and weigh in the teens, and they are purchased for crafts, carving, wall décor, chandeliers, dog chews, and non-traditional medicines. If you find a large matching set — the holy grail of moose shed hunting — then you can practically name your price.
Forty years ago, back when Staats — who spent 27 years as a biologist for the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department — first started hiking the backwoods of northern New England in pursuit of them, antlers, and the moose who once wore them, were plentiful. But as much of New England’s wildlife has boomed in recent decades, moose have struggled. Winter ticks, helped by a warming climate, have decimated populations. This downward slide has coincided with an uptick in people hunting for sheds, an activity that has a much smoother path of entry now thanks to the ability to electronically scout for good habitat remotely.
Back in the day, Staats found one antler for every two miles of hiking; he and some buddies once found 30 on a single hike.
Nowadays, he finds one antler for every five miles of hiking, and it takes diligence to keep his average there. “You have to out-think your competition, or you have to out-hike them,” Staats told me of this silent game.
He tries to do both, but there’s only one he can actually control. And so he hikes. And hikes. And then hikes some more, from dawn until dusk each day of that quick window between when the snow melts in the mountains of northern New England and the fast-growing greenery swallows the view of the ground — and the antlers.
In a handful of weeks he’s been known to log 350 miles up and down the hillsides, hopefully ending up with at least one 10-pounder strapped to his back if he’s going to break even on gas. No one is getting rich hunting sheds, but Staats is usually able to make a couple thousand dollars to fund his annual canoe trip to Labrador, and there’s an obvious pride in out-working his growing competition.
Which I thought would be me. In the weeks leading up to my outing with Staats, I pictured a future of lazy spring days in the mountains, a perfect set of antlers resting just so in a meadow, waiting for me walk up on them as a chorus of birds provided the soundtrack.
Instead, my moose shed hunting career began, as we got out of Staats’ truck at the foot of a mountain, with a question about my footwear. Here’s what I chose to wear for our hike: hiking shoes. Here’s what Will Staats wore: knee-high, flimsy green rubber boots, the sort you use to wade a boat, or to look cool when wearing a Barbour coat. They seemed as practical for a day of hiking as a set of high-heels. But that was before I realized Staats was a mountain man super-athlete — he has a resting heart rate of 49 beats per minute — and should never be questioned by a flatlander.
I worry here that I make Staats out to sound dictatorial. He was impossibly nice, and was super encouraging to me as we set off up a steep ATV trail, even as he pulled 10 yards ahead within the first 10 seconds. Then 20 yards ahead. Then far enough to have to yell back to me, as I replayed our phone conversation, the one where I had answered his questions about my fitness with, “Um, I run marathons, buddy.”
We were gaining altitude like the Space Shuttle before I had a chance to huff out any proper complaint, and then we went off-trail, the beginning of 7 miles of bush-whacking up and down a remote cluster of 3,000-foot mountains, where no two steps were alike — we took 22,625 of them — and they all required you to plow through something thick.
Did I mention that Staats did not bring water with him? Nope, all he had was a sparse frame backpack to strap antlers to, and a Ziploc bag, which he very occasionally dunked into a spring bubbling out of the mountainside, then drank like a mountain man who feared no parasites. I, on the other hand, was geared up like a mannequin in the window of an REI, except sweaty and panting like a Saint Bernard.
Eventually I found my footing, or he took pity on me and slowed, and we had a couple hours of dedicated searching in an area with an unmistakable moose presence. I stepped over hundreds of piles of scat, saw dozens of trees rubbed raw by antlers, and the veteran biologist was constantly showing me everything less obvious, such as bushes pruned by years of moose teeth.
Since we didn’t find any antlers — you probably saw that coming — I had to get my adrenaline hit from simply watching Staats’ face light up when I asked him what it felt like. “There’s nothing like it, because no two are the same. They’re like snowflakes. I’ve found thousands of them, and I never get tired of it.”
But the more time I spent with Staats, the more I was certain that the antlers were just the excuse. This was really about something else.
“I’ve spent my life exploring wild places. Finding an antler is icing on the cake,” he confirmed during a rare moment when he actually sat down and took a break. “It’s just the excuse to come here, to connect with this physical evidence of this great fantastic beast that has also been here. It’s the grandest treasure hunt. Every time I see one I’m just as excited as my first one. I can’t get enough of it.”
And with that, we were back at it, Staats plowing ahead, me stumbling after, trying to remember when I thought this was just a story about antlers.