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Gilligan, the castaway loon, made his getaway from Minnesota lake

Gilligan, the juvenile loon who was stranded on a lake in the Crow Wing Lake chain near Nevis in early December when much of the lake iced over, was seen flying away from Dec. 19 by two people who were ice fishing in the area where Gilligan had been sighted.

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This photo of Gilligan, the juvenile loon who was the focus of attention around the world when he was marooned in a small opening in the ice on one of the Crow Wing Lakes in November when ice formed, was taken in September. A group of people ice fishing on Dec. 19 saw him take off and clear the tree line. Loons from this winter spend the winter in the Gulf of Mexico, so that is likely where he headed.
Contributed / Debbie Center
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NEVIS, Minn. — Area residents and Facebook friends who had been cheering for Gilligan were happy to learn he made it out of the hole where he had been swimming and was able to take flight.

Earlier this winter, the loon was seen swimming 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 attempted rescue was not successful and the loon's own success to get out of its predicament was left undetermined — until now.

“We call it Lake Gilligan now,” said Debbie Center, who had spearheaded attempts to rescue Gilligan on Dec. 8 while he swam and dived in a hole in the ice approximately 25 feet in diameter. She last saw her loon on Dec. 18.

Gilligan was named after the castaway character on TV’s “Gilligan’s Island.”

Center did not hear from the people who saw Gilligan fly away Dec. 19 until Jan. 24, when a member of her lake association contacted her after reading what she wrote about Gilligan in the group’s newsletter.

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The woman, who wants to remain anonymous, emailed Center: “I wanted you to know first hand that we know that Gilligan flew away. On Dec. 18 my husband and a friend were fishing on our lake. They saw Gilligan taking runs at flying from the ice. When they made it back out Sunday the 19th, just after lunch they witnessed Gilligan fly over the tree line and away."

Center said she called the woman and asked if there's any chance it was a merganser they saw, and she said absolutely not. “He (her husband) was close enough to Gilligan on the 18th and 19th to watch him doing the penguin dance right on the ice, doing little test runs on the ice itself, and then gliding back into the water! He said that Gilligan never actually flew on the 18th, but then on the 19th he saw him gain flight and head over the tree line!”

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Center said the guys who saw Gilligan fly off were close enough in the spot where they had walked out to ice fish Dec. 19, but due to being loaded down with gear they were not able to take a picture.

“I was shocked,” Center said. “I can hardly believe it! He made it! We got our miracle! We as humans don’t have to interfere with nature and save everything. These creatures are equipped with certain skills of their own to get out of messes they get into.”

Loon experts weigh in

Center said that while she has seen loons return when there is still ice when they return to the lake in March, she has never seen anything that indicates loons can take off to fly from ice. That means that Gilligan most likely was able to take flight from running on the water in the small hole he was swimming in.

Loon rescue experts in Wisconsin, who Center had been in contact with during the attempted rescue, posted on her Facebook page “Loony for Loons,” which has 7,000 followers: "We personally have witnessed loons taking off from a small area of open water and gaining altitude over the ice.

READ MORE IN NORTHLAND OUTDOORS:
It’s best to find out in advance what’s missing and won’t work. The time for such discoveries is not when you start to pitch a tent upon your arrival at the campground right at dusk on a Friday night.

“Since Gilligan was on a large lake with as I would call ‘a big runway’ with no trees to stop him from gaining altitude, he could easily gain the altitude he needed to continue his flight south. A perfect ending to Gilligan’s story."

Another person posted on Loony for Loons that loon biologist Eric Hanson has observed a loon take off from a 30-foot long opening, and many others may have taken off from 100-foot or less openings, as they were gone the next day and there was no sign of them around the shorelines or on the ice.

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A happy ending

Center said she hopes Gilligan made it to the Gulf Coast. “There are rivers along the way where he could land on the way to the gulf and have access to fish,” she said.

Center said the juveniles don’t return to Minnesota for several years. “When they return, the juvies aren’t welcome on their natal lake.” she said. “They will be seen as intruders and chased off by the parents. But whenever I hear a loon call, I’ll think of Gilligan.”

Gilligan’s plight captured the attention of people around the world through Center’s Loony for Loons page, and who were excited to hear of his flight to freedom.

Lorie Skarpness has been writing for the Enterprise since 2017.
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