GRAND MARAIS - The Erickson-Pionk crew had been hunting for the shed antlers of moose for three years. No luck. Hunting mostly near Grand Marais, they hadn’t found a single shed.

Then they met Johnny.

They had risen early that spring morning in Eveleth, where Chris Erickson and his girlfriend, Melanie Pionk, live with their six kids, and about 7 a.m. happened to pull into the SuperAmerica convenience store in Grand Marais. That’s where they ran into “this old-timer,” Erickson said.

“I told him we were shed hunting,” said Erickson, 41. “I asked him if he’d ever found any. He said, ‘Oh, yeah.’ ”

That was four years ago. It’s safe to say the Ericksons and Pionks couldn’t have happened onto a better moose-shed mentor. They’ve been hunting sheds with Johnny Bloomquist, 75, of Grand Marais every spring since they met.

“He’s our story,” Erickson said. “We wouldn’t have done anything if it weren’t for him.”

The first year or two with Bloomquist, the Ericksons and Pionks found 20-some moose sheds. The next year, they hit the mid-30s. Last year, they brought home a phenomenal 55 moose sheds.

That doesn’t count any that Bloomquist finds. In fact, he no longer picks them up. If he sees one, he’ll hang around until an Erickson or a Pionk comes by to find it. Bloomquist and the Erickson-Pionks have developed a lasting friendship that extends beyond the shed-hunting season.

“He loves it when we come up,” Erickson said. “We talk every two or three weeks on the phone. We make a trip up to their place in the summer.”

That first day at the convenience store, Bloomquist hadn’t shared any of his secrets. But he went home and thought about it. He was back at the store the next morning. So were the Ericksons and Pionks. Erickson remembers that morning well.

“He said, ‘If you take all them kids with you, I’ll take you to all my spots,’” Erickson said.

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That’s what inspired Bloomquist - the kids, who now range in age from 5 to 18.

“Any kids that young who would get up that early to be at the SuperAmerica in Grand Marais at 7 o’clock - there’s gotta be something special about ’em,” Bloomquist said.

On the hunt

On Monday morning this past week, Bloomquist was driving his old red pickup along a logging road near Grand Marais. Brandon Pionk, 12, was riding with him. Erickson and Pionk were following in their own truck with Richie Erickson, 15.

At intervals, they’d stop in the middle of the road, and the Erickson-Pionks would fan out to make big loops through the recently logged country on crusted snow.

Bloomquist is mostly retired from logging and from several years at Hedstrom Lumber Co. in Grand Marais. He keeps in touch with timber cutting in the area. Like all moose-shed hunters, he knows where to go. Moose are known to hang around the edges of clearcuts. They lose their antlers in mid-winter, after the fall mating season. When the snow is mostly gone in the spring, shed hunters venture out, looking.

Chris Erickson knew when he saw how deep the snow was this past week - more than 2 feet in spots - that they were too early. But they couldn’t resist coming up to take a look. And to be with Bloomquist. They walked for a couple of hours with no luck. Then Bloomquist built a fire, and the whole gang roasted some brats.

The world of shed-antler hunting, for both deer and moose antlers, is intensely competitive. That makes Bloomquist’s benevolence to the Ericksons and Pionks even more remarkable.

“If you go to anybody else, they won’t tell you anything,” Richie Erickson said.

Dwindling moose numbers

Bloomquist has been hunting moose sheds for 26 years, mostly with his partner, Carol Lenzen. Back when Minnesota claimed more than 8,000 moose, compared to about 4,000 now, their sheds were everywhere.

“Ten years ago, on one loop, we found 22 antlers, including three or four sets,” Bloomquist said. “Now it’s hard to find one.”

“We’ve seen eight or 10 sets that he’s kept,” Erickson said. “They’re out of this world.”

Many more shed hunters look for deer antlers than moose antlers. That’s how Chris Erickson started, too, many years ago. Then he turned to moose antlers.

“It really wrecks looking for deer antlers after you find a moose shed,” he said.

Part of the appeal of a moose antler is their sheer size. They’re big. They’re thick. They’re heavy. You can see the tiny creases in the palmated part of the antlers where arteries once pulsed with blood as the antlers were growing. Moose, like deer, grow new antlers each year after they shed the old ones.

“An antler, to me, is like art,” Erickson said. “You look at all the blood lines. They’re cool.”

Hard work, long walks

In a typical day of shed hunting with Bloomquist, the Ericksons and Pionks might find one to three antlers. Some days are exceptional.

“One day, Melanie found five in about two minutes,” Erickson said.

Finding one is a treat. But sometimes they come in pairs. That happened to Richie Erickson last year. He found the first antler, a beautiful deep brown, at the base of a tree bearing antler rub marks.

“Whenever I find one, I want to find the other one,” Richie said. “I turned around and walked 15 feet and found the other one.”

Brandon Pionk found a big antler one morning last year, and his mom found the other half of the set in the afternoon.

Many of the antlers that the Ericksons and Pionks find have been measured officially and are listed among Minnesota’s biggest sheds in the book “Big Game Records of Minnesota.” Bailey Erickson, Chris Erickson’s 18-year-old daughter, found the sixth-largest moose shed in Minnesota, according to the record book.

On display

The question, of course, is what does someone do with all of those moose antlers?

“They’re in a pile in the living room,” Melanie Pionk said. “I think it has more than 100 in it.”

There are more - older ones - in a closet, and a few in the garden for the mice to chew.

“Everyone thinks we’re crazy,” Erickson said.

The Ericksons and Pionks don’t sell their antlers, though there is a market for them. They’ve given away only a couple.

The family found no antlers during last week’s hunt with Bloomquist. They saw plenty of moose tracks, several rubs and some droppings. But the snow was just too deep for good hunting.

At one spot Bloomquist took them to, Chris Erickson got a quizzical look on his face.

“Have I ever been back here before?” he asked Bloomquist.

“No,” Bloomquist said with a wry smile. “It’s been a secret.”