Movement on the already icy Gull River caught a resident's attention Thursday, but it took binoculars to determine it was a deer struggling to survive in the cold water.
Ione Soyett watched the deer flailing in the water from her riverside home after it broke through the ice during an attempted river crossing and felt she had to do something. She first noticed the deer's plight about 8:30 a.m. and began to call agencies she thought might be able to help, including the sheriff's office and, naturally, the Department of Natural Resources.
"The animal is struggling," Soyett said. "It needed help. It's just a human interest thing-you've got to do something."
Her husband Tom also searched for numbers and eventually they connected with Conservation Officer Eric Sullivan, who was working in the field. Soyett was able to direct Sullivan to a private river landing with access to the open water. The Soyetts had to leave the drama unfolding before them to deliver Meals on Wheels. When she got back to the house she saw a DNR boat going into the water and the deer still there fighting to stay alive. Then she watched, waited and prayed.
"My heart was pounding," she said. "I kept thinking should I be praying here-I said why not."
She watched as Sullivan's boat had to cut through the ice to reach the stranded and now exhausted deer and worried how he would manage to move the animal on his own.
Responding to the call of a deer in distress, Sullivan had additional struggles with a boat motor that was overheating because of a frozen cooling system. Sullivan, who served for nine years as a Baxter Police officer, has been with the DNR for less than three years. He estimated 200 yards of ice stood between the open water and the deer. About an inch-and-a-half of ice already formed on the river with pockets of open water. Sullivan was able to negotiate through the mixture to reach the deer, a spike buck weighing an estimated 150 pounds. By this time, the young buck had been struggling in the water about three hours at least.
From their vantage point in the Gull River home, the Soyetts continued to watch and hope.
"I kept thinking c'mon deer, you can hang on," Ione Soyett said.
Sullivan was able to get a strap around the buck's shoulders and guide the deer to his boat. He lifted the deer inside the boat. Ice clung to the young deer's eyelashes, ears and neck. The deer looked dazed and confused.
Sullivan moved the deer to safer ice, but the buck didn't move. So Sullivan again plucked the deer from the ice and into his boat to head for shore where he met Mike Lee, the DNR regional training officer. Together they took the buck to the Garrison Animal Hospital and its Wild and Free Wildlife Rehabilitation Program.
Dr. Katie Baratto, a veterinarian with the Garrison Animal Hospital for 10 years, said the buck presented a rare opportunity to help an adult deer.
"So this is kind of a cool case," she said.
Baratto, who has been active at the animal hospital since she was a teenager and a decade before she became a vet, said they often work with injured or orphaned fawns, but adult deer are more rare because they don't do well in long-term rehab.
As of late Thursday afternoon, the buck was doing OK, Baratto said. When he first came in he was in rougher shape, but she said the deer was perking up.
"He's lifting his head now," she said. When he came in, the buck's core temperature was too low to even register. But they bedded him in straw to warm him and provided medicine.
"We'll see how he's doing tomorrow. If he's healthy and raring to go, he's going to be interesting to package up," she said. "We'll find out, maybe we'll call Mike and Eric and make them get in on that, too."
Wild and Free is a nonprofit wildlife program that functions entirely on donations and works to rescue, rehabilitate and release orphaned and injured wildlife.
Baratto praised Lee and Sullivan for their efforts.
"Kudos to them, that was cold work I bet," Baratto said.
The deer rescue was Sullivan's first. Most of the time, he said, when they get such a call, the animal will have worked themselves free or sometimes not have been able to survive until help arrived. In this buck's case, the timing was right. Any earlier and Sullivan noted the buck may have been too wild to be able to move as successfully.
For Sullivan, the move to the DNR has been a complete lifestyle change.
"I love it," he said of being outdoors, on the water and interacting with people.
Asked what the takeaway should be in trying on a frigid day to save one deer in the midst of deer-hunting season, Sullivan said people get into work with natural resources because of a passion for wildlife and a passion to do their part, no matter what it is.
To watch a cherished animal struggle and potentially die on the ice without anyone trying to do something to save it is tough, he said. And to save one when they have the time and resources is a good outcome.
That's what Ione Soyett was hoping for as well. She's been a resident along the river for 41 years with 13 of those as a permanent resident. She's enjoys seeing the wildlife-wolves, bear, deer, all variety of birds-entire grouse and turkey families this year. She said saving one deer has its own ripple effects. Soyett said she told Sullivan it was his good deed of the day.
"There are not enough good things happening in this world," she said. "You have to have some good things."