The world watches, roots for a young loon trapped in an icy Minnesota lake

a loon in a small bit of unfrozen lake surrounded by ice
A loon is stuck, surrounded by ice on a lake in north central Nevis, Minn. Resident Debbie Center has been documenting the loon on Facebook since Dec. 4, 2021 with many fellow loon lovers eager to rescue the loon.
Courtesy of Debbie Center

On Nov. 25, Debbie Center got a note from a friend who lives on the lake adjacent to hers, on the Crow Wing Chain of Lakes, near Park Rapids.

"She said, 'Did you know that there is still a loon here?’” recalled Center. “I said, 'You gotta be kidding me,' because I hadn't seen one for a couple weeks before the lakes froze."

The 11 lakes in the chain are connected by the Crow Wing River, so they often have little pockets of open water throughout the winter.

Center says adult loons began their long migration weeks ago and that young loons, born early in the summer, always wait until just before the lake freezes.

"We get nervous every darn year. And then they get out of there like they're supposed to. Well, this one didn't. He's a juvenile and he was still over on this lake," she said.

Loons are heavy. Unlike most birds, they have solid bones. That allows them to dive as deep as 250 feet to fish.

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But it also means they need a long runway of open water — 100 to 600 feet long, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources — to get airborne. The one that is now stuck is in a pool of open water just 25 feet across, surrounded by ice.

Center, an artist and a musician from Colorado who started living in Nevis in 2014, started taking photos and videos of the loon, nicknamed “Gilligan” by the resident who first spotted it. She began posting regular updates on a Facebook group she created a few years ago called “Loony for Loons.”

She says she's heard from people around the world who are rooting for Gilligan, from Australia and New Zealand to the United Kingdom and Barbados. And as the loon's social media fame grew, so too did calls to rescue it.

“It got to the point where average citizens were starting to threaten to go out there and do the job themselves. And of course, that's super dangerous,” said Center, because the ice is so precarious around the open water.

‘Never worth a human life’

That's when Lori Naumann, non-game wildlife program information officer for the Minnesota DNR, decided to get involved.

“I did comment on Facebook and told people that it is never worth a human life. Ever,” she said.

But Naumann knows it can be really hard for humans to see wildlife struggle.

“It's heartbreaking and heart-wrenching and when it's getting so much attention on social media, it increases the social pressure to go out and do something about it.”

Which is why the Nevis Fire Department intervened. This week, three firefighters took huge fishing nets onto the ice to try to capture Gilligan. Center recorded a video as she and some neighbors watched.

“Oh, so close!” they whispered, as the firefighters swung their nets down, narrowly missing the loon as it splashed to the surface.

Every time the loon came up for a gulp of air, it disappeared again, before the would-be rescuers could capture it.

After about a half-hour, they retreated. They didn't want to stress the loon any more. As they walked away toward shore, Gilligan, seemingly in defiance, issued the loon's telltale call.

members of a fire department on an icy lake with large nets
The fire department in Nevis, Minn., spent 35 minutes trying to rescue a loon stuck in one of the town's frozen lakes on Dec. 8, 2021, according to resident Debbie Center who filmed the attempted rescue.
Courtesy of Debbie Center

“Oh geez, I didn't think I was going to hear that sound again until April!” exclaimed Center.

It turns out it's really hard to capture a loon, even one surrounded by ice. Linda and Kevin Grenzer know that better than anyone.

The couple run an operation called Loon Rescue from their home in northern Wisconsin. What started as a retirement hobby has grown into a year-long passion.

Grenzer says they rescue loons in all seasons, including in the winter, when she estimates they typically rescue two or three loons from iced-in lakes every year.

To do that, she says, they've found the pool of open water needs to be 10 feet across or less. Otherwise the loon has too much room to surface and dive again.

"By the time they're up in the water and you got that net swinging down at them, they're already diving deep down and you're not going to capture them," she said.

Grenzer said many of the loons they rescue suffered lead poisoning, from eating fish that had swallowed lead sinkers used by anglers. Some are injured. Some get tangled in fishing line.

Judging from the videos she’s seen of Gilligan, Naumann does not think the loon has lead poisoning. She suspects it was born later than other loons this season, and simply needed more time to grow stronger.

“This loon is pretty vibrant still, and it appears as if it's been eating just fine. And it dove when the rescuers tried to get out there and net it. So that tells me that it's healthy and it probably just was a late hatch."

‘A delicate balance’

Grenzer knows some of the loons they rescue won't survive. But sometimes they do, she says, and that makes it worthwhile to her.

She remembers a loon she plucked from the water that had a big muskie lure stuck to its wing. That loon returned to the lake the next winter.

She also believes it's still worth capturing loons in case they have lead poisoning. Because even if they don't survive, she figures she may have saved the life of an eagle that could have preyed upon that poisoned bird.

"If you do not go after a loon that has lead poisoning, what happens is they do die and an eagle will most likely predate on them. [Then] they will get lead poisoning and they will die."

The Grenzers have invested over $20,000 in equipment, including a hovercraft, another boat with a special motor that allows them to go into shallow areas, and high-powered spotlights for night rescues.

Linda Grenzer said it's too far a drive for them to come help the loon in Nevis, but said they've given advice to firefighters.

And Grenzer says since Gilligan's story went viral, people in Minnesota have contacted them about setting up a similar operation.

Debbie Center said the fire crew told her they'd try again when the hole in the ice gets smaller. But she says four bald eagles have been watching Gilligan's story unfold just as intently as she has.

"It's not all cute little baby chicks on the backs of parents, you know. All these animals have to get their food somehow. And there's a very delicate balance in nature, and how much do you interfere?"

Even if he is captured, Naumann says the loon faces an uncertain future. A wildlife rehabber would need to transport him to the Gulf of Mexico, a long journey that would put even more stress on a young bird.

“It's pretty rare for it actually to be successful. But it has been.”