500-year-old elk antler found by Minnesota diver
DETROIT LAKES, Minn. — Gary Thompson has been pulling pieces of history out of Becker County's lakes and rivers for going on half a century now.
"This will be my 50th year," says Thompson, owner and proprietor of Detroit Lakes' Tri-State Diving. "I started diving in 1967... I paid for my first set of scuba gear out of my high school graduation money."
His dive shop on Little Floyd Lake Road is a veritable treasure trove, containing an eclectic array of items that he has gathered during his underwater adventures. The skulls of a pair of prehistoric bison, pieces of logging and ice harvesting memorabilia dating back to the 19th and 20th centuries, scuba gear both old and new... they're all scattered along the walls and shelves of Thompson's home-away-from-home.
But it's his latest acquisition, an antler from an ancient elk of undoubtedly prodigious size, that may be his most unique find yet. Thompson pulled it from the southwest side of Buffalo Lake in northern Becker County last summer.
"At first I thought it was just a big root system," he said. "But when I got a better look at it, I thought, that's an elk horn."
Once he got it up into his boat and got a really close look at it, Thompson was struck by its sheer size. Roughly five feet long from end-to-end, and weighing around 30 pounds, the horn has six distinct points.
"I wish I could have found the other one," Thompson said, noting that it could have been a 12 or 13-point set of antlers. At its thickest point, it measures 11½ inches in circumference.
Intrigued by his find — elk have not been seen in Becker County since the mid-19th century — Thompson decided he wanted to know exactly how old it was.
"My major in college was anthropology," he says. "Whenever I find something down there, I have to know everything about it."
But carbon-dating is expensive, so this past fall, Thompson launched a successful Go Fund Me campaign to raise the $740 necessary to have the horn sent to a lab in California.
Last month, he got the results.
"It's 570 years old," Thompson says, which means the elk most likely fell in the lake and died there somewhere between 1420-1500.
Now that the carbon dating is finished, Thompson has coated his elk horn with a specially formulated, clear preservative that will hopefully allow it to remain intact for another century or two.
"Someday the museum will get it," he says — but for now, it occupies a prominent spot near the service desk in his shop.
"I want to keep it here for a while yet," Thompson added.
Though his job involves helping to pull wrecked cars, trucks and semis out of the water, training generations of new scuba diving enthusiasts, and assisting with special events like last weekend's Polar Fest Plunge, it's projects like locating pieces of old logging equipment and the bones of ancient animals beneath the surface of area lakes that Thompson calls "my passion."
"It's all volunteer — I don't get any money for doing it," he says.
Though some of what he finds can be seen on the walls and shelves of his dive shop, Thompson says that all of it will eventually be donated to area museums.
There is one particular piece still lurking in the waters of Big Elbow Lake that Thompson would like to see brought to light someday, however: A flat rail car atop a logging sled that vanished beneath the lake's surface decades ago — along with the horses pulling it.
But the museum would need to get special permission from the state for that to happen.
"It's still down there," he says. "I've seen it."