Hunters risk their hides for deer caught in ice

Valari Hyatt

Six hunters braved snow and ice in the flooded backwaters of the Illinois River near Mendenhall Park on Route 24 on Tuesday to rescue three deer that had fallen through the ice.

Originally, 11 deer -- one buck and 10 does -- fell through the ice, but eight managed to get out by themselves, according to Hollis Township Supervisor Gary Thomas, who used his boat to bust paths through the ice so the deer could swim to the bank.

“I have a plate aluminum boat … . It has three ice-breaker runners, and that’s what helped us break through the ice to reach the deer. Nobody runs a boat on the water when there’s ice like this -- a normal boat would be torn up.”

Thomas said ice on the lake measured a couple inches thick, and it was kept insulated by a thick carpet of snow. But where the deer were at in the middle of the lake, the ice was thinner due to a strong river current underneath.

“Right now the river is at or above flood stage, so there is a strong current out there that makes the ice thin. Other places it’s so thick you can go ice fishing, but not where these deer were.”

He added: “I don’t know what happened to make the deer run out there. Maybe a coyote scared them.”

Knowing time was running out, the men raced ahead.

“If a human was in that water, they’d only have eight minutes,” Thomas said. “These deer managed in 2 ½ to three hours.”

While Thomas motored the boat, Chad Snyder of Bartonville and Kirk Sorensen of Washington plucked the deer out of the water and into the boat.

Tom Rowen, a member of the Friends With the Illinois River, who helped get the deer out of the boat and up the embankment, said the deer were so compromised that they were able to “grab the deer by their legs, kind of like you would roping a young steer. Gary motored the boat to the shoreline, and two out of three of the deer got up and walked to shore.”

One doe, however, was extremely exhausted.

“She swam a couple hundred yards to the bank, but she was so weak by then that it took four of us to help her get over the embankment. Then she took off,” said Thomas.

“They had to be weak enough to get them into the boat like we did. These are wild and strong animals. They bite and their hooves are so sharp they can kick you in the stomach and cut your spleen. But we talked to them, rubbed them to get their circulation going, talked sweet to them, and they cried and they calmed down.”

Thomas said their cry is similar to the bleeping sound a sheep makes, only higher pitched.

“I think they knew we were trying to help them. We massaged them, talked to them and they quieted down until we got them up on the hill to release them.”

Bartonville Police Officer Fred Kern said the deer rescue was a first for him.

“I’ve never seen anything like this before. The men involved did a great job bringing in the deer by boat, one at a time. It took probably three hours. I saw Tom (Rowen) on the ground with the last doe, trying to keep it warm.”

Rowen said when the adrenaline kicked in, he wasn’t thinking about anything but helping the deer.

“The last doe had balls of ice frozen to her neck and ears, and ice was hanging from her like a chandelier almost. As cold as it was, we had to help thaw her out, dry her fur.”

One of the men brought blankets, and someone else brought some straw, and eventually the ice thawed out enough so that Rowen could break it off with his hands. They worked for hours, trying to rehabilitate her, but she was unable to get up and run off like the others.

Fearing the worst, they put the doe in the warm van belonging to Chuck Blumenshine of Peoria, and he took her to a warm building.

“We’ve got her in deer intensive care,” Thomas said.

Times photographer Joni Andrews was looking for some “wild art” when she came across the wildest scene of her photographic career. 

“There were five deer trapped in the water when I got there. The oldest buck and doe made it out on their own almost immediately, but the three younger does were trapped. The men had to break the ice in order to get their boat into the water and then they had to drag the deer into the boat and again drag them up to shore,” Andrews said.

“It was awesome. It was phenomenal -- all of the deer made it, but they were still working on one when I left. It was in the water at least two hours. She was exhausted and frozen but one guy (Rowen) actually got on the ground and wrapped himself around her.

“He literally saved her life. All of these guys are heroes.”

Hunters all, the men said they don’t think of themselves as heroes.

“We’re all passionate deer hunters and outdoorsmen who are driven to make a difference and help these deer,” said Rowen. “It’s a neat feeling. It’s so neat to interact on their level. It’s a success that 10 out of 11 made it OK. We’re hoping the last one makes it, too.”

Thomas agrees.

“I’ve rescued some wild animals before, but never like this, never so many. We’re all hunters who care about nature. We don’t just take. We’re trying to keep this last doe alive – we’re hoping for the best,” Thomas said Tuesday evening.

By Wednesday morning, Rowen had good news. He said he talked to Chad Snyder, who said he took the weakest doe to a barn, built a bed of straw and covered her from head to foot. Then he left the barn door open in such a way that if the doe did get better, she could kick it open and leave.

“I just talked to Chad, and he said when he went out to check on the doe, she was gone. Sometime in the middle of the night, she got up and bumped the door and walked away. She’s doing fine.”

Pekin Daily Times