When two deer broke through thin ice on the Richibucto River, they began struggling to stay alive in the frigid waters on Thursday morning.
That's when a nearby resident called members of the Rexton and Richibucto fire departments to the scene near Route 11 for a challenging ice rescue.
Rexton Chief Brent Goodwin said that when firefighters arrived at 9:45 a.m., they saw a doe and what they believed to be her fawn. The younger deer was moving about in and out of the water in distress, its mother in danger of drowning.
"It kept coming back to the deer that was through the ice and in the water, and then it would break through and get stuck. But it could jump out," Goodwin said of the fawn.
After more than an hour of effort, both deer were safely off into the nearby woods. The rescue took about 16 firefighters, several attempts and the use of special equipment.
Firefighters suited up in cold-water rescue gear and slid an inflatable boat across the surface, tied to the shore. The first crew began breaking through the ice and had to turn back.
On the second attempt, the deer, which appeared to be pregnant, slipped out of their grasp.
"They were exhausted, so we had to switch out to a couple other firefighters with their suits," he said.
The responders used a reach collar on the third attempt to grab the doe by its neck. She was then wrapped tightly in a warm blanket and pulled up onto the shoreline at about 11 a.m.
Goodwin said when firefighters were close to rescuing the doe, the smaller deer ran off into the woods.
They rubbed the doe with a blanket to warm her up after the icy waters, then five minutes later she slowly moved her legs and managed to slowly head off into the nearby trees. The crew cheered and clapped.
Goodwin said it feels good to be able to save a life.
"There are people out there who would say that's foolish, or it's nature," he said. "It's easy to say but when you're sitting there watching an animal suffer and they're going to drown it's easier said than done."
Ice thinner than normal
The crew has rescued deer before, along with children and dogs. The ice rescue on Thursday was the first both fire departments have had to make this season
The Richibucto River is normally a popular wintertime spot for snowmobiling once it freezes thickly across. But with mild temperatures this year, the ice is unusually thin leaving the channel in the middle wide open.
Goodwin said the river is especially thin this year and he is warning people to stay away.
"This was a deer this time, but it could be a person," he said.