The deaf driver’s attention was drawn to a moving shape fighting for its life to escape a river. And while he couldn’t hear it splashing, its desperation spoke for itself. Without some intervention, then, the trapped deer would most likely freeze to death, if it didn’t drown first. And the driver knew he had to act fast.
Minnesota was receiving a lot of attention in December 2015, thanks to the efforts of a disabled man who went above and beyond to save the life of a trapped animal. The state is renowned for its chilling winters; indeed, the frozen conditions that month had held at least two lives in an icy grasp.
One of those lives was that of a deer that had become trapped in the frigid waters of the Kettle River. The creek had become sheeted in ice during the winter period. And, as a result, it had proven to be a potential deathtrap for the intrepid animal trying to cross its frozen surface.
The second life in the balance was hearing-impaired hero, Steven Peterson. The man of the hour was a 50-year-old master woodworker and craftsman with a talent for fixing things. And that was a skill he put to good use repairing the situation the wild deer had gotten herself into when he found her.
To tell his story, Peterson uses American Sign Language, which is the standard communication technique for the hearing impaired in North America. He also wrote about the events of the rescue in response to questions from journalists at his local newspaper, the Duluth News Tribune.
Peterson had been visiting family in Missouri for Christmas and was driving back home. That was when he spotted something unusual along Interstate 35 as he crossed the Kettle River. Indeed, his attention was drawn to the water’s icy surface, where something just wasn’t quite right.
He recounted to the Duluth News Tribune, in fact, that he had “noticed what looked like a rock bobbing up and down.” What’s more, the sighting had stuck in his mind. “I kept driving north and dwelled on what I really saw in the river,” he added.
In fact, the oddity of what he saw bothered Peterson so much that he turned around and returned to the bridge. However, this time, when he looked out onto the river, he could easily see the problem. A deer had fallen through the ice and was struggling to escape.
Peterson decided that with his disability, trying to call and tell emergency responders about the situation might be more difficult than trying to save the deer himself. “Being a deaf individual, I knew the struggle to communicate with the police would take too long. I knew if I tried my best, I might be able to save this animal,” he explained to the Tribune.
“The deer’s face was covered in icicles and looked to be in rough shape. It was continuously trying to escape on its own, struggling to survive,” he continued. There was only one way Peterson was going to be able to save the desperate animal, then. He, too, would have to tempt fate and crawl out on the ice.
But the ice wasn’t very thick in some parts, and the river ran quickly just below the frozen surface. Indeed, the winter waters were already trying to claim one victim. And if Peterson wasn’t cautious, he would end up just like the deer.
The dangers of winter rivers are well known to locals; the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources itself puts out several warnings for ice sports enthusiasts to be careful in its “Land of Lakes.” And while Kettle River can be as narrow as 75 feet across, at the point where it intersects with Interstate 35 the river is still only about 200 feet wide.
But despite the danger to himself, the compassionate Peterson couldn’t just watch as the deer struggled to escape its premature fate. “It was certainly risky going out on that ice, but something in my heart made me feel obligated to save this creature,” he told the Tribune.
Equipped with a long tree branch and a trailer strap, Peterson braved the river’s icy surface. And he did this while knowing that as a deaf man he would be at a severe disadvantage if the ice was unstable. “I would not be able to hear the ice crack, so I kept my eyes on a swivel looking for fractures,” he said to the newspaper.
“I crawled out with the log perpendicular to my body,” he told the Tribune. “In other words, I made a ‘T’ with the log, my body being the vertical line and the log being the horizontal line. With both hands on the log I could shimmy out to the deer.”
Unfortunately the camera Peterson set up to record the rescue overturned during the ordeal, but it captured most of the important parts – including the grand finale. And, fortunately, the daring attempt paid off. He was able to loop the trailer strap around the flailing deer’s head and foreleg and pull it safely from the river.
After struggling for its life, the deer was too tired to move; with the trailer strap Peterson hauled it up the bank to safe ground. And although the animal had been bleeding a little, its savior said that it was otherwise unharmed and had probably just been scratched by the jagged ice.
“The deer had been shivering and shaking up until this point, and once it had calmed down and the shivering subsided, I helped it onto its legs,” he recounted. “It walked a short distance and then sat down and looked at me. It seemed as if it was not even cold any more.”
Peterson named the deer “Miss Ice River” and he watched over it for the next hour. However, it didn’t seem to need any further aid. “It calmly looked around the area, periodically licking its wounds,” he recalled. “I knew this was a strong deer. It would be OK. I said my farewell to Miss Ice River and left.”
“I felt so proud and overjoyed that I overcame the challenge of the situation,” he mused. However, Peterson’s sister, Trish Earley, wasn’t surprised by the news at all. “He’s gotten some very warm responses from friends and family. His act of kindness touched so many people, and that’s just the kind of person he is,” she said to the Duluth News Tribune.