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Nature photographer Jeff Grotte found healing through his camera

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Jeff Grotte didn’t dream of becoming an astronaut or a fireman like other kids. He wanted to be a nature photographer.

“Everybody else was watching cartoons,” he recalls. “I was watching nature shows. National Geographic, all that stuff.”

The Otsego man hasn’t landed that fantasy job with National Geographic. Actually, his health keeps him from holding any job, he says. Grotte was born with a congenital heart defect called Tetralogy of Fallot. Among other complications, blood bound for his lungs regurgitated back into his heart.

He’s had four open heart surgeries to correct it, but physical activity can still be difficult. Grotte's diabetes doesn’t help either.

But that hasn’t kept him from his favorite hobby, photographing birds — owls in particular. The 33-year-old founded the Facebook group Owl About Minnesota, where local bird lovers share their pics of different types of indigenous owls, from barn to boreal. It was his stunning shot of a Northern saw-whet in flight that caught City Pages’ eye, winning our photo contest last week. 

After years of taking blurry photos, Grotte was gifted a used lens that gives him the range needed to capture images like the “shots I’ve been seeing on TV” since childhood. Still, with the right equipment he thinks he can do even better than the crystalline pictures he’s already taking, and last year launched a GoFundMe campaign for new gear for new gear. His hobby is as much about the outdoors, and getting what exercise he can, as the photos themselves.

After myriad surgeries and nearly losing his life, Jeff Grotte chases his nature photography passion.

After myriad surgeries and nearly losing his life, Jeff Grotte chases his nature photography passion.

“People my age, a lot of them sit in the bar every night after work,” he says. “I wonder how they do it. I basically need to be outside, look at this stuff, have that to keep me going.”

(Click here to see more of Grotte's photos.)

Years ago Grotte's body nearly quit on him. He was scheduled to have surgery to put a cadaver valve in his heart. His body rejected the valve transplant. Complications put three new holes in his heart and blew out another valve. Both kidneys and his liver failed, and Grotte slipped into a coma. “I was within days of dying,” he says.

Grotte was helicoptered to Mayo Clinic for another surgery. This time it was a success and he eventually awoke from the coma. “My little sister finally got me to squeeze her hand,” he says.

Recovery was a long, grueling process. He was hospitalized for nearly two months, with an intubator down his throat for weeks, and had to relearn how to talk and breathe.

These days Grotte takes his health day-to-day, and does as much as his body allows. He’ll spend time trouncing through the woods with his camera chasing owls. And he’s grateful for every second of it.

“It makes you appreciate everything on such a small scale that you would have never thought of before,” Grotte says, his voice permanently raspy from eight throat surgeries. “I can go out and walk in the woods.

"I might get worn out but I still appreciate it. There are plenty of people in worse situations than I am.”

(The rest of you amateur photographers have until 5 p.m. Sunday to submit photos for this week’s contest. Click here to read about rules, contest details, and this week's prize here.)

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