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‘Local legend’ buck survives icy ordeal in Red Lake River

Buck On Ice Cropped
A buck rests on the ice of the Red Lake River near Thief River Falls in northern Minnesota as he tries to regain enough energy to get to his feet on the morning of Dec. 5, 2022. Members of the Thief River Falls volunteer fire department pulled the buck from the water after he had fallen through the ice sometime before daylight on Monday morning. The crew got the buck to shore where he eventually got to his feet and walked out of sight into the woods. (Contributed photo from the Thief River Falls fire department)

Thief River Falls, Minn. — The Thief River Falls volunteer fire department has some experience responding to rescue calls of animals that have fallen through the ice during Rick Beier’s time as fire chief, but never one quite like the department responded to on Dec. 5.

“Never rescued a deer like this, but we have with dogs,” Beier said in an interview with Outdoor News. “They like to stray out on the ice sometimes, too.”

The deer they helped rescue from the frigid water on the Red Lake River just happened to be a bit of a local legend. A huge buck by anyone’s standards.

“Leading up to this, there were pictures of that deer on Facebook all the time in the local area,” Beier said. “People would snap pictures of it on their trail cam or whatever. It was the exact same one. He’s been a little bit of a legend if you will before (Monday).”

Buck In Water
A buck works to hold itself above the ice on the Red Lake River just inside city limits on the south edge of Thief River Falls on Dec. 5, 2022. Thief River Falls fire department chief Rick Beier said the water in this area of the river was about 6 feet deep. A nearly 10-person crew made up of members of the volunteer fire department were able to help get the buck to shore where he eventually got to his feet and walked off. (Contributed photo from the Thief River Falls fire department)

Beier took a call from a concerned citizen who saw the deer’s head above the ice at about 7:50 a.m. on Monday. This area is just south of Thief River Falls, technically still within city limits.

“It’s right on the edge,” Beier said. “He has a lot of wooded area there to roam.”

The buck fell through the ice not far from a busy stretch of road in the mornings that leads to Challenger Elementary School. He was spotted from a bridge that is new to the roadway within the past couple of years.

Beier arrived on the scene to find others who had stopped to look over the situation. The buck was stuck about 20 to 30 feet off shore.

“It was open water right by the bridge, and the water was flowing pretty good,” Beier said. “Where he went through, that part of the river isn’t extremely deep. It’s probably, if I had to guess, maybe 6 feet deep there. Deep enough obviously. The best he could do is get his front hooves up on the ice, but then there was no grip from there. There was nothing he could do.”

Beier said the buck had already worn himself out trying to escape by the time they got there. There are risks that Beier had to consider with the buck’s antlers, but he was confident that his crew could safely put together a plan to help the deer.

Exhausted Buck
The buck sits exhausted on the ice after members of the Thief River Falls volunteer fire department pulled the deer from the frigid water where he fell through the ice on the Red Lake River on Dec. 5, 2022. (Contributed photo from the Thief River Falls fire department)

“How long he had been there is anybody’s guess,” Beier said. “We felt fairly comfortable going in on a situation like that where he’s fairly played out.”

A group of about 10 volunteers from the department gathered at the scene with their rescue equipment on and got to work trying to free the buck. The crew secured a tow rope around the deer’s antlers and began pulling with a couple of people on each side of the rope.

The buck used what energy he had left to help free himself, using his front legs to get up and out of the hole.

“He didn’t put up much of a fight,” Beier said. “Once he was out of the hole, we let him sit there for a little bit. We thought maybe he would get up, and he didn’t. We slid him to the edge of the river, and we pulled him up the bank right onto the edge of the woods.”

Resized 20221205 082213
Members of the Thief River Falls fire department work to get the buck to shore after pulling him from the frigid water on Dec. 5, 2022. (Contributed photo from the Thief River Falls fire department)

With the tow rope removed, the crew watched and waited. The buck got to his feet after a minute or two. He moved slowly, but walked out of sight into the woods.

Whether or not the big buck will show up on another trail camera picture is yet to be seen, but the effort from the local fire department gave him a chance.

“Hopefully he makes it,” Beier said. “He was a bit wobbly, but he walked off into the woods. How long can a deer sit in the cold water like that? I don’t know. A lot of that probably depends on how long he had been there. It was just pretty much starting to get light. He could have been in there for quite a long time.”

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