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Gilligan, the trapped loon on frozen lake, will have mysterious fate explained in children's book

Gilligan was last seen Dec. 18. On Dec. 19, Debbie Center went to the lake to check on him, but saw nothing but ice from her viewing spot 1,700 feet away.

Gilligan the loon trapped
A pair of Nevis firefighters head out on the ice Dec. 8, 2021 to try reaching Gilligan, secured to the shore by a 1,000 feet of rope. After 30 minutes of trying to catch the trapped loon in a net, they gave up in order to avoid stressing and weakening it too much.
Contributed / Debbie Center

NEVIS, Minn. -- Debbie Center monitored Gilligan for three weeks after being alerted by a neighbor that the loon was in trouble, posting his story on her Facebook page “Loony for Loons.”

“I have a ton of pictures going through this entire process that I will use in my book,” she said. “Some people said since I don’t know what happened to Gilligan I can make up a happy ending, but life doesn’t do that. It’s more about how you handle it when life doesn’t give you closure or the ending you want or any ending at all.”

She plans to include some of the lessons she learned from trying to help Gilligan in her book.

“I think it’s very timely with all of us going through the pandemic and how to handle all we have been through,” she said. “We need to learn how to listen to and respect each other and live in harmony because we need all of the ideas in the world to come to the best solutions for everyone. When things happen, how do we heal, how do we handle disappointment? I think that’s a more valuable lesson to teach through this story than making up a happy ending.”

Gilligan was seen trapped in early December in open water on the Crow Wing chain of lakes, near Nevis, weeks after the other loons migrated to spend the winter in warm waters down south. An original rescue attempt was not successful.


Center’s background is in music and she has also written a piece entitled “Dance of the Loons.” She said her experience with Gilligan has made her connection with loons even stronger.

“Gilligan has certainly brought a lot of attention to loons around the world,” she said. “People who didn’t pay attention to them before are paying attention now.”

Another idea for her children’s book is exploring what the eagles were doing out by Gilligan. “We put our perceptions on nature all of the time,” she said. “What if those eagles weren’t trying to eat Gilligan? What if they were trying to show them how to just stand up and fly away, to help him and didn’t understand that loons don’t have that ability.”

She hopes to use some of the proceeds from sales of her book to benefit the Loon Center in Cross Lake. “They’re trying to put together a loon rescue team for Minnesota and one of their volunteers came out during the rescue attempt for Gilligan,” she said.

Gilligan’s disappearance

Since loons need a large area of open water in order to fly, Gilligan was stuck. His story went viral, gaining worldwide attention.

“On Dec. 8, Nevis Fire & Rescue bravely attempted to capture him, but Gilligan's diving skills were just too much for the team and, after doing all they could, they had to admit defeat,” Center said in her blog post.

“Nature doesn't always understand when we're trying to help, and Gilligan was just doing what he was taught to do in order to elude predators.”

Gilligan was last seen Dec. 18. On Dec. 19, Center went to the lake to check on him, but saw nothing but ice from her viewing spot 1,700 feet away.


I don't think anyone wanted him saved more than I did.
Debbie Center

In her Dec. 31 Facebook post, Center wrote, “Perhaps Gilligan came to represent the pain that we're all feeling, the hopelessness, the endless feeling of being stuck, and we are all so desperate to finally have a happy ending. I continued to monitor Gilligan daily while giving a host of media interviews, all with the hopes that another rescue could be attempted.

“I would come to learn that rescuing him would be incredibly dangerous to humans, very complex, and very controversial. I found myself in the middle of quite a hornet's nest of various reactions from the world and, frankly, the pressure was unbearable. With great sadness, I left that spot, wondering what I would say to the world who had been following his story. I desperately wished I could have saved him and felt like such a failure.”

Loon art painting
Debbie Center's love of loons is reflected in her music and art, including this commissioned piece she painted recently. Her next project will be a children's book with life lessons from Gilligan.
Contributred / Debbie Center

She said some people chastised her, the city of Nevis and its fire department that not enough was done to rescue Gilligan.

“I don't think anyone wanted him saved more than I did,” she said. “But I wasn't in control. Rescuing him would have involved a very complicated network of various entities working together to get him safely off the lake, then evaluating him, possibly rehabbing him, and then transporting him to a warmer climate.”

Center said while she has a soft heart for wild creatures, she also understands the Minnesota Department of Natural Resource’s point about letting nature be nature.

“It’s a complex web of interwoven things you need to consider,” she said. “Nature’s a delicate balance.”

Gilligan the loon cake
A cake ordered by a Facebook friend she never met cheered Debbie Center up after criticisms that more should have been done to rescue the loon stranded on a lake near Nevis.
Contributed / Debbie Center

Touched by kindness

Center said the kindness of a Facebook friend she never met took some of the sting out of the negative comments on social media that she could have done more to save Gilligan.


“Her name was Karen and she said she felt just horrible about how much hatred had been thrust upon me,” Center said. “She arranged for an incredibly talented artist-baker, Susan Laine, to design and bake me a cake, and deliver it.

“I met Susan and her husband about halfway between our homes. The cake, which looks like a postcard from the Gulf Coast, reads ‘I made it! Love, Gilligan.’ I am just stunned by the kindness of these strangers-turned friends. They literally gave this story a sweet ending. May we all learn the valuable lessons that Gilligan taught us, and may 2022 be the year we start to heal old wounds, openly consider and respect other points of view, and begin to create a world of harmony together. Only then can we all be free of our current situation and say we made it.”

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