Posh lodge offers hunters comforts of home, record deer

John Barnes
Special to The Detroit News

Lupton— On 800 acres of rolling forest land in northeast Michigan’s Ogemaw County, trophy deer wander for the taking — if you have the cash.

Nine-, 10- and 11-point bucks — record-book deer — make their homes within the enclosed confines of Valhalla Lodge, one of the newest and most exclusive game preserves in Michigan.

Hundreds of thousands of hunters prepare to descend on more than one million Michigan deer Tuesday, the start of the two-week firearm season. Many will stay in heritage cabins, some heated by wood stoves, sheltered in deer blinds that offer only little protection from blistering fall winds, or free hunt in the open elements. Some, though, prefer ritzy to chintzy.

They are not competitors, hunting since early September and into January, but equally fervent in harvest, paying much more for much better results. They want trophies.

You would have to pay $250,000, plus annual fees, for a membership at Valhalla, which features posh, mansion-like accommodations. The targets are the deer and elk, all behind 10-foot fences. The deer are trophies, perhaps scoring 200 inches or more, and can be certified as records by Safari Club International.

Most of the large bucks recently were shot near feeders.

“It’s not that hard of a hunt, but it is a hunt. Not only did I get a trophy buck, but I also get the meat,” said Josh Ratliff, 31, of Brighton, who shot an 11-point buck, even as a bull elk approached and observed the group. Ratliff was in an elevated Ranch King hunting blind for perhaps five minutes. He waited as other deer wandered in.

An hour passed. He fixated on the large buck. “If you want, you should shoot, because you might not see another buck like that,” guide Anthony Best told him.

Five deer, dressed and hanging near related heads for taxidermy, are in the freezer this day.

“I don’t care where you hunt. That is a world-class buck,” said Best, Valhalla’s marketing director, gazing at Ratliff’s 6-by-5 rack. The back of his white cap says, “American by grace of God.” The deer weighed perhaps 300 pounds.

“That is a fantastic animal that 99 percent of hunters would never see,” Best said.

This is an industry combining bullets and bucks. There are 136 such hunting preserves in the state and they are controversial even within the hunting community.

Michigan United Conservation Clubs, the state’s largest sportsmen’s organization, does not recognize taking wildlife within high-fence enclosures.

“We just don’t consider that hunting. It’s commercial harvest,” said Drew Youngedyke, the group’s spokesman.

He said the organization supports “the fair chase of hunting free-ranging, legal wild animals.”

At facilities such as Valhalla the enclosures are so large it’s not totally like hunting in an enclosure, said Merle Shoemaker, store manager at Al & Bob’s Sports, a premier West Michigan outdoor store for hunting, archery and fishing in Wyoming.

However, Shoemaker added, the lands are managed so well, that the deer hunting is easy.

“I don’t think the hunting can be compared to hunting national lands or non-preserve lands,” Shoemaker said.

‘Hands down’ nicest place

Valhalla is a class III hunting facility, audited by the state. Animals can only leave dead, said Ryan Soulard, a Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist and coordinator of the privately owned cervidae program. The program is co-managed with the Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development.

Others licensed by the state include those with pet deer, those for exhibition and the largest segment, typically breeding operations, a total of 355 facilities. That’s down from an all-time high of 885 in the late 1990s, before there were few — if any — regulations on hunting lodges, Soulard said.

Valhalla is a sprawling, rolling, lake-dotted property that operators and customers say is world-class. The name is from Norse mythology, meaning “hall of the slain.”

“I have been all over the world to different places. This is hands down the nicest place I’ve been to. It is as close to five-star as you can get, if not there,” said David Ratliff, 53, of Howell, patriarch of the long weekend’s hunt with sons Ben and Josh. He shot a 10-point buck.

Ratliff is gentle-spoken and measured in disposition. You would not know he has shot an adult male lion charging at 20 yards, or mountain sheep at so-many thousands of ill-weathered feet above sea level, the hardest hunts, he said.

“The hunt is about the hunt,” said David, who hunted 29 weekends last year. “It’s about the going, not the destination. It’s about passing down the legacy we have.”

The lodge is 13,000 square feet. Meals are by chef Tim Brown. “The best job I’ve ever had, and I’ve had some good jobs,” said Brown, 10 days into it.

Antlers dominate the decorating theme.

There also is Pennsylvania mica field stone, concrete roof shingles, and special tile.

A two-story “garage” is 7,400 square feet. The garage’s main level has etched stone, suitable for large gatherings. There are many exotic trophies from North America and beyond. The upstairs includes an office with a large, custom wood desk and a conference area. There are massive herd bull antlers. Each side may be 25 pounds, half a concrete bag.

It costs $250,000, plus annual fees, for a membership at Valhalla Lodge, which features posh, mansion-like accommodations and a landscape with babbling brooks and waterfalls.

High-end price and features

Membership here is targeted at those with means.

Initiation is $100,000. There is also a minimum 2 percent equity fee of $150,000. You can buy up to a 10 percent equity. The annual fee is $10,000. Profit sharing is included. Perhaps only 15 members will be enrolled. It is all-inclusive. For that, there are seven vacation days, plus 31/2 guided hunting days.

The public can partake in a hunt as well. Those costs start at $5,000 and run to $20,000, depending on the animal sought. There are about 350 deer of all ages, split among males and females, much higher than in natural habitat.

Valhalla general manager Jim Velasquez, 56, has a nice house on the hill for what he calls a “24/7” job. He has been here 18 years, moving from Durango, Colorado, developing the property and then the mansion beginning in 2002 for Detroit-area auto dealership magnate Ken Meade. The property is now owned by B&B Hunting properties.

There are fields laced with buck-forage oats, clover and alfalfa. Eight feeding stations supply nutrients. This time of year they are high-fat meals for the coming winter.

It helps deer reach their full growth potential, based also on genetics, lack of predators and age, Velasquez said. Many of the animals have been bought and brought into Valhalla for their distinct genetics, and many are being bred naturally, not in pens.

A 25-stage clay sport-shooting range is among the field features. There are two isolated and enclosed octagonal glass towers on the property for comfort, warmth and ambiance.

“A lot of business deals have been made here,” Velasquez said. Best said a recruiter is in Dubai, the most populous city in the United Arab Emirates.

On this day at Valhalla, as dusk begins, perhaps eight deer, all female, graze in a field. Velasquez points the way out, toward an automated gate. Look down the hill first, he said, for deer or elk.

“We wouldn’t want any escapes,” he smiled.

John Barnes is a freelance writer in western Michigan.

Hunting’s impact

More than 525,000 Michigan hunters are expected to take part in the annual firearms hunting season. The Department of Natural Resources says it’s the largest economic impact of any hunting season.

The DNR estimates more than 90 percent of hunters will head to the woods this year, spending an average of a week away from home.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates hunting in Michigan generates more than $2.3 billion in economic impact in the state, including food, lodging and $1.3 billion for equipment.

Spending on leisure travel associated with hunting reached roughly $123.8 million last year, up from $85 million in 2014, according to data from D.K. Shifflet & Associates, which tracks tourism and travel.