At first glance, Jake Cosley says he wasn't quite sure what he was seeing Wednesday afternoon while snowmobiling on the Red River south of Pembina, N.D.
It looked like a dead deer, but something else seemed to be going on, too, he said."I saw all this stuff going on around its head area and I'm like, 'what kind of a buck was this?'" Cosley, 23, said.
As he got closer, Cosley, of Pembina, says could see a buck that still was alive sprawled on the ice, locked at the antlers with the head of another buck.
Judging by the vertebrae hanging from the entangled head, which was all that remained of the animal's carcass, the second buck had been dead for quite some time.
There didn't seem to be much life left in the surviving buck, either, Cosley says.
"He was just laying there until I got up to him, then he tried starting to get up," said Cosley, who graduated in 2016 from the University of Minnesota-Crookston with a degree in agricultural systems management. "All he would ever do is just walk backward. He never tried to go forward or anything else."
Even though he was alone and didn't have a saw or any other tool to pry the antlers apart, Cosley knew he had to try and free the living deer.
First, though, he decided to shoot some video to document the unusual encounter with his iPhone, which quickly died in the cold. Cosley put the phone in his pocket to warm up and was able to coax enough life back into the battery to shoot a couple of photos and some video.
Then came the tricky part: getting the antlers freed from a living buck that didn't realize Cosley's good intentions.
"Sitting there trying to wrestle with it, it was pretty tough, because even though he was very weak, he was still strong," Cosley said. "I'm sitting there trying to focus on what's going to be the best move to rip the antlers apart. They were actually loose inside of each other. ... There was some play, but they just would not come apart.
"And I'm sitting there tugging on him. I didn't know how bad I was hurting the live deer by trying to pull on him like that because it had to have been stressing his head some with how much pressure I had to use to sit there and rip them apart."
Needless to say, the surviving buck wasn't exactly cooperative.
"He was thinking I'm trying to kill him," Cosley said. "He doesn't know I'm trying to help him. I'm like, 'Come on, man, you've got to settle down. I'm trying to help you.' "
Eventually, Cosley was able to separate the entangled antlers after several minutes of trying.
"He finally got loose, and when he did get loose, he backed away from me and then started trying to run," Cosley said of the surviving buck. "He looked like he was all disoriented when he started to take off and run because I'm sure his neck had been caught for who knows how long."
Worst-case scenario, Cosley says, he worried he'd have to use the pistol he carried to shoot the antlers apart.
"That was kind of my very last resort I was going to go to, but at least I didn't have to," Cosley said. "I didn't want to have to shoot that close to the deer's head."
The surviving buck appeared to have some bite marks on its hind quarters, and one of its eyeballs had been punctured, Cosley said, either in battle with the other deer or perhaps during a coyote attack on the dead buck.
Judging by the racks and how they were entangled, Cosley says it can't be the same buck that showed up on a trail camera near Walhalla, N.D., several weeks ago dragging the entangled head of another buck.
"You can tell when you look at the racks they're just not the same," he said. "The other one looked like the head literally was just severed off, and this one had more of a dragging spine. And from where this was, even as the crow flies, to Walhalla, it would have been 45 miles. Deer just don't, even when they're healthy, travel that far."
Cosley also was able to shoot video of the surviving buck as it wandered away and into the brush.
"All I was thinking was, I hope this thing lives because he's got a punctured eye and there's potential of infection in his back end from getting bit," Cosley said. "I probably sat there for five minutes after he got away, and when I took off on my sled, he was just gone. He must have kind of got his bearings back enough to at least get off the river and into the river brush."
Neither of the bucks were trophies, Cosley says, and while he pondered keeping the head of the dead buck, he decided to leave it on the ice for nature to reclaim, instead.
Cosley then continued his snowmobile ride, heading to Hallock, Minn., to visit a cousin.
No doubt he had quite a story to tell when he got there.