Ryan Muirhead and a couple of deer hunting buddies were driving the back roads of Kittson County on Dec. 12 -- the last morning of Minnesota's muzzleloader deer season -- when they came across a spectacle of nature they'll never forget.
There in the snow, just a few yards off the road, was a bull elk lying on its back, its massive antlers mired 8 to 10 inches into muddy ground that still wasn't frozen, despite an air temperature of 25 below zero.
The tracks in the snow suggested the bull had been with a herd of elk that jumped a fence and crossed onto state land. The bull made it across the fence, but somehow tripped and landed on his back.
It had been there at least two hours, Muirhead said, based on reports from others who had seen it cross the road about 6:30 a.m.
"We drove up, and here he was on state land," Muirhead, of Roseau, Minn., said. "He landed upside down just like a turtle."
The bull was still alive, and Muirhead and his hunting partners walked up and considered their options for freeing the big animal.
"Everybody was standing there going, 'What do we do?'" he said.
They didn't know it at the time, but the antlers eventually would measure among the largest ever scored by Boone and Crockett, the organization that has recorded the scores of trophy animals since 1830.
Freeing the bull
They hadn't been there long when some local residents came driving by. A crew of people soon was onsite with a 10-foot 2x4.
As Muirhead recalls, they got the 2x4 under the bull's antlers and managed to pry its head out of the mire and turn the elk on its side.
The job, he said, took eight people.
"We got him rolled over thinking he was going to dart, but he was so tired, he had no steam left," Muirhead said. The elk staggered to the fence but fell to the ground.
"Finally, he got up and stopped and looked back at us," Muirhead said.
Muirhead swears he saw a look of gratitude in the big bull's eyes when it stumbled into the woods and out of sight.
"You could see he was looking like a 90-year-old man who'd just gotten beat up in an alleyway," Muirhead said. "You don't expect it, when you see him like that, and he's kicking."
There'd be no more sign of the elk that day, but Muirhead said he still couldn't get the image of that animal out of his mind. So, he drove back to the area the next day, approaching the woods from a different direction in hopes of spotting the elk with the rest of the herd.
Walking miles through knee-deep snow, he came to the area where the elk were bedding down, but there was no sign of the bull.
Muirhead drove back to the site the next morning -- this time with his wife, Josie -- and they walked into the woods where he'd last seen the elk.
They'd gone maybe 600 yards when Josie spotted the bull bedded down in the snow. They walked within about 25 yards, he said, but the bull was so exhausted it couldn't stand.
He snapped a few photos, and they went home.
Muirhead returned alone later in the day. More than 48 hours now had passed since they freed the bull from the mud, and it was obvious death was at hand.
Still, he'd invested too much in the experience to walk away and let nature take its course; with the temperature barely above zero, Muirhead held vigil for six hours until the elk had taken its last breath late that afternoon.
"Your heart just drops," he said. "It's a sad deal when you see him laying there dying. But there's nothing you can do about it."
Contacting the DNR
Muirhead, who was interested in retaining the big bull's antlers, contacted the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, and DNR conservation officer Ben Huener of Roseau responded.
"They gave us a call like we encourage people to do," Huener said. "They were interested in the antlers and in the elk itself, and I was interested in the forensics of seeing if it was a crime scene. That was my No. 1 priority."
Huener retained the elk, and staff from the area wildlife office in Karlstad, Minn., took routine blood and tissue samples and collected a tooth to age the animal. Huener said he also examined the bull to make sure it hadn't been shot.
It appears the bull is 10 to 14 years old.
"We did kind of an impromptu necropsy, at least for my sake, to see if there were any bullets," Huener said. "It had a couple of broken ribs from ending up on its back from all those tines everywhere. Elk weren't made to be on their back like that."
Two days passed, and Muirhead didn't know if he'd be able to get the bull back from the DNR.
"It sounded like I was going to get it," he said, adding Huener first had to check with his supervisor.
Still, they weren't sure.
"We went to bed Thursday night (Dec. 16) and said, 'At least we were blessed to see something like this,'" Josie said.
The next day, Huener called back with the good news: Everything checked out, and the DNR was granting them a permit to possess the animal.
"There obviously were not any bullet holes in it, and we gave it back to him," Huener said. "He called it in and did what we asked him to do. We gave him a permit so he'll at least be able to possess" the antlers.
Huener delivered the elk to the Muirhead residence last Friday.
"I was in awe just to see him again," Muirhead said. "It was just crazy."
Muirhead said he credits the DNR for their willingness to work with him on retaining the elk. The agency, for various reasons, doesn't always have a great reputation among residents of northwestern Minnesota, but Muirhead said his experience was nothing but positive.
"It was 50/50 that we were going to get this thing," he said. "I am very fortunate -- especially with something of that caliber. The DNR was easy to work with. It makes you want to do the right thing, too, after that."
Muirhead said he isn't sure if they'll be able to use the meat because the bull was so stressed.
For the record
The Muirheads on Tuesday morning brought the cape and the head of the elk to Sportsman's Taxidermy Studio in East Grand Forks, where they plan to have it mounted. Randy Dufault, an official measurer for the Boone and Crockett Club, green-scored the rack at 456 4/8 inches. The antlers have to dry for 60 days from the time of the green-score measuring before they can be officially scored.
The rack, Dufault said, will score as a 6x7 typical with some non-typical points, even though it had 9 points on one side and 10 on the other with an asymmetrical pattern.
By any measure, Dufault said, the rack is the largest he's ever scored. If the score holds up after it dries, Dufault said it would rank No. 5 in the world. The world record non-typical elk -- taken in Utah and certified in 2009 -- officially scored 478 5/8.
"I've only done one over 400 in my whole life," Dufault said -- in New Mexico, a state known for producing elk with trophy racks. "To be 456, that's just amazing.
"I've seen a lot of bulls way wider than this and way higher than this, but I've never seen this kind of mass," Dufault added. "This is really big. You never see one like this in Minnesota."
The Muirheads, meanwhile, have shown the antlers to numerous visitors since taking possession of the bull. The antlers are so massive a full-grown man couldn't get his hands around the base, which measures 13 1/8 inches on the right side.
"It's definitely something to see," Muirhead said.
Huener, the DNR officer, said it might be a sad ending for the bull, but at least the antlers will be preserved for people to enjoy. Fortunately for the Muirheads, they have a 22-foot cathedral ceiling in their living room. They're going to need a lot of space to display this trophy.
"I'm from Montana, and I've never seen anything that big," Josie said of the bull's rack. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience."
Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to email@example.com.