TOFTE, Minn. -- Ryan Pennesi was on his way to work at the Superior National Forest Service office in Tofte on Monday morning, March 22, when he noticed three deer on the remaining ice on the Cross River just upstream from where it crosses under Minnesota Highway 61.
Pennesi, an accomplished photographer whose work has been featured in the Duluth News Tribune, pulled over to capture some shots with the morning sunlight shining just right on the doe and two yearling fawns.
What he witnessed next was a remarkable struggle for survival in nature that few people ever get to see.
The larger doe tried to cross the river above the falls, stumbled on the slippery rocks and was swept down the rushing river now swollen with spring snowmelt.
“Each time the doe tried to rise out of the river, a torrent of water kept pushing it downstream,’’ Pennesi said. “Before I realized what was happening, the doe disappeared under the ice and down the side of the waterfall. I thought to myself, ‘that’s it, that doe is a goner.’”
But after what Pennesi described as a “long 10-15 seconds,” the doe emerged from under the ice at the bottom of the falls. The soaked deer managed to climb up onto an ice shelf and saved itself.
Then the same thing nearly happened again when one of the younger deer tried to cross. It too stumbled and was swept downstream nearly into the waterfall before it managed to get a hoof-hold on the other side.
"Panting and sputtering, it managed to beach itself and crawl up the other side," Pennesi said.
The photographer had his camera ready for the third deer to make the same mistake. But instead of trying to cross the river it turned around and headed back into the woods from where it came.
"Quite a start to the day," Pennesi said.
Pennesi said the deer’s harrowing experience should be a lesson for people who are exploring along North Shore streams when they are at their springtime peak flows. In fact this stretch of the Cross River once featured a large sign that read "Warning: Lives have been lost here!"
"It is a good reminder to be careful around these thawing, swelling North Shore river mouths," he noted.