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STRATTON, Maine — As a general rule, deer that find themselves in the immediate vicinity of Justin Wyman do not fare particularly well.

An avid hunter, the lifelong Maine resident has spent much of his 28 years tracking the animals. He got his first gun at age 5 or 6, shot his first buck at 12, and, in the decades since, he hasn’t much slowed, playing a role in the harvesting of close to a dozen deer over the years.

As he put it recently, in an apparent attempt to quell any doubts a stranger might have, “I’m not one of those animal-rights people.”

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But late last month, when Wyman stumbled on a deer in need, he did something that might seem counterintuitive.

It happened on a windy, frigid Sunday morning in the vast, forested north of Maine, in this no-stoplight town 20 miles from the Canadian border.

A crew leader with the Maine Department of Transportation, Wyman was driving out on Route 27, perusing the frozen landscape around him — you never know when you might stumble upon a fertile hunting spot — when he noticed a dark shape out in the middle of Flagstaff Lake, floating in a hole in the ice.

He didn’t think much of it at the time. A log, he figured

But when he drove by again a few minutes later, the shape had moved, and Wyman, curious, pulled over to a nearby boat dock to get a better look. A warden, Pat Egan, with the Maine Warden Service, was already on the road with a pair of binoculars. He handed them to Wyman. It was a deer, a six-point buck, struggling to stay afloat. It must have wandered out on the ice and fallen through.

The men stood for a moment, watching the deer treading helplessly.

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Wyman is tall and broad-shouldered, with a scruffy beard, a camouflage hat, and a Trump/Pence sticker slapped to the back window of his pickup.

Hunting is a way of life, for him and many who live up here. Deer is meat. People rely on it for food. When he was only 5, Wyman went with his father on hunting trips. He can recall — in clear detail — the first deer he killed.

“My dad told me if I shot it, I could keep the gun,” he says.

He learned quickly the practical rules of hunting — how to clean and care for his gun, when and where the laws allowed him to hunt. He also learned unwritten ones, a code of ethics: A respect for wildlife, the nobility of the kill, and a compassion for the animals he stalked.

“I’ve got a boat,” Wyman said to the warden. “You want to go get it?”

Justin Wyman used his boat to try to rescue a deer.
Justin Wyman used his boat to try to rescue a deer.Justin Wyman

Rescuing a deer in such difficult conditions would be risky. There were 200 yards of ice no more than 2 inches thick between them and the animal. They’d have to break a path and find a way to return the creature to safety without getting into trouble themselves. If they ended up in the water, they wouldn’t last long. And there was no way to be sure the deer would survive in any case.

“It had been out there a long time,” Scott Stevens, another warden who showed up as Wyman and Egan watched, recounted later.

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But Stevens liked the idea. “Let’s go for it,” he said.

Wyman drove to his house a mile away and set to work on his boat. Just a week earlier, he’d spent two hours winterizing it — draining the fuel, removing the battery, covering it against the relentless Maine weather. Now, as his girlfriend came out to ask what he was doing, he hustled to put it all back together. Finally, he fastened the trailer to his pickup.

By the time he returned to the lake, a half hour or so later, another game warden had arrived, and a small crowd of onlookers had begun to gather. After a brief logistical discussion, Wyman — along with Stevens and another warden — hopped into the boat.

Leaning out over the prow, the men chipped at the ice with axes and two-by-fours, busting a path big enough for the boat to get through. Progress was slow.

At last, they approached the buck, which was huffing and snorting in the water. A warden uncoiled a rope and tossed a lasso at the deer’s head. The frantic animal thrashed, roaring in fear. The lasso missed. They tried again and succeeded. Wyman put the boat in reverse, moving slow enough for the buck to swim and carefully pick its way through the ice, and they retraced their path back to shore.

When they reached the dock, the deer stumbled ashore and collapsed. Its eyes were bloodshot, ears purple from cold. It struggled to rise but fell again. The men nudged it with the two-by-fours, prodding it toward a grassy embankment surrounded by trees and rocks where it would be sheltered from the wind.

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The buck fell onto the grass and didn’t get up. There was little more they could do so they left. They took turns coming back to the spot every so often to check on it. An hour went by and then more. Wyman went home to get his daughters. When they returned, the animal hadn’t moved.

Later in the afternoon, when the wardens came again, the deer was still down. Maybe the effort to save this animal had simply come too late. Talking between themselves, they came closer. Suddenly, the buck, seemingly startled, leapt to its feet, bounded to the nearby woods, and was gone.

Wyman was glad when he got the news.

He stood at the lake’s edge one afternoon last week, reflecting on the fact that he had helped save an animal that under different circumstances he might have shot. There is no contradiction, he says.

“You have to have respect for the animal that could potentially provide for you and your family someday,” he said. “Some people take a lot of things for granted, but those animals are a gift.”

Justin Wyman walked down to the edge of Flagstaff Lake, where a broken path through the ice can be seen, in Stratton, Maine.
Justin Wyman walked down to the edge of Flagstaff Lake, where a broken path through the ice can be seen, in Stratton, Maine.Yoon S. Byun for The Boston Globe

Dugan Arnett can be reached at dugan.arnett@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @duganarnett.