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The rescue of ‘Miss Ice River’: Duluth man saves deer from frigid water

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Steven Peterson of Duluth took this photo of himself with the deer that he rescued from the Kettle River along Interstate 35 in Pine County on Monday. (Steven Peterson photo) 2 / 4
Steven Peterson of Duluth used a tow strap to rescue a deer that fell through the ice of the Kettle River on Monday. He noticed the struggling deer while traveling on Interstate 35 on his way home to Duluth. A video he made of the rescue has gone viral online. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com) 3 / 4
Steven Peterson took this photo of a deer that he rescued from the Kettle River on Monday. He said that he waited with the deer for some time after pulling it from the frigid water, and it appeared to have no serious injuries. (Steven Peterson photo) 4 / 4

A video of a man next to an exhausted, ice-covered deer he just rescued from a frigid river has been making the rounds on the Internet in recent days.

Using American Sign Language, the man — who shot the video himself — recounts how he was driving, saw the deer struggling in the river and felt he had to do something. Petting the deer, he names the animal “Miss Ice River” and says he’s glad it survived.

As it turns out, the man in the video lives in Duluth — and the scene unfolded Monday along Interstate 35 in northern Pine County, on the icy Kettle River.

“It was certainly risky going out on that ice, but something in my heart made me feel obligated to save this creature,” Steven Peterson said.

Peterson, 50, contacted the News Tribune on Thursday to share his story; he is deaf and answered questions in written form.

Peterson said he was returning from a trip to visit family in Missouri for Christmas when — while driving across the Kettle River bridge on northbound I-35, north of Sandstone — he “noticed what looked like a rock bobbing up and down. I kept driving north and dwelled on what I really saw in the river.”

At some point he decided to turn around and head back to the bridge. After stopping, he saw that the object in the water — quite a distance from the highway — was a deer. Peterson considered calling 911 — as authorities would most likely recommend in such a situation — “but 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 said.

Peterson said he trekked through thick brush and snow to reach the river’s edge.

“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 recounted.

Peterson had brought a trailer strap from his truck down to the river, and he found a long, dead tree he could carry.

“I crawled out with the log perpendicular to my body,” he wrote. “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.”

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources officials have issued warnings about dangerous ice conditions in the state this winter — and rivers in particular can harbor thin ice thanks to moving water — but Peterson said he felt he could safely gauge the ice conditions as he slowly made his way out.

“I crept along the ice carefully, but quickly judging the strength of the ice as I went,” he said. “I would not be able to hear the ice crack, so I kept my eyes on a swivel looking for fractures.”

He managed to reach the deer, which was still flailing its front legs in an effort to escape the river. He waited until he felt it was in a good position and managed to get the strap around its head and front right leg, and then was able to pull the animal out of the water.

Peterson had set his phone up to shoot video while he was out on the ice — but when he got back to it, he said, he found it had tipped over and only captured part of the rescue (that's the video at the top of this story). He brushed off the snow, and then filmed the post-rescue clip that made its way online.

“I felt so proud and overjoyed that I overcame the challenge of the situation. The deer could have drowned at any time, but I was able to rescue it on my own.”

Peterson said he got the deer to the river’s edge and saw it was too exhausted to get up the steep bank — so he refastened the strap to its body and hauled it up to level ground.

“At this point, my hands are tremendously cold and I am soaking wet. I am OK, but cold. My gloves were too wet to keep on, so I took them off and wrapped my hands in my coat. The deer and I maintained eye contact as we both tried to warm ourselves up,” he said.

The deer was bleeding a bit, but it wasn’t a severe injury, Peterson said — it probably had been scratched by the 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 wrote. “It walked a short distance and then sat down and looked at me. It seemed as if it was not even cold anymore.”

Peterson said he waited and watched the deer for an hour. The deer seemed tired, he recalled, but didn’t appear to need any further human intervention. If it had, Peterson said, he would have contacted authorities.

“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.”

He returned to Duluth and shared the photos and video with family and friends.

“Hearing about Steve’s heroism didn’t surprise me at all — he’s very compassionate, he’s an avid outdoorsman … it’s just amazing that he could even spot this deer in distress,” said his sister Trish Earley of Duluth. “He’s just a very gentle, caring soul and would help anybody or anything that needed him to.”

And he can think quickly on his feet. Peterson, who has lived in Duluth for about four years, is a master woodworker and builder, Earley said.

“He can come up with anything to fix something — he’s just very knowledgeable in how to make something work out,” she said.

Earley said it’s been a busy few days for Peterson, responding to messages from people who have seen the video or photos online. The gentle way in which Peterson interacts with the deer has resonated with people, she said.

“I’m proud of him, (and) I’m relieved that he was safe,” she said. “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.”

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