Fly fishing

After brain injury, ex-athlete finds healing by photographing owls

Andy Witchger suffered multiple concussions while playing high school, college and recreational league football. The last one left him so stunned and listless that he couldn’t get out of bed. When he finally did, nature and photography brought the 38-year-old out of obscurity.

“Before my head injury, I was a very inward-looking person. Goal-oriented, driven to get things done,” said Witchger, a graduate of Edina High School and St. John’s. He now teaches religion at Benilde-St. Margaret High School.

“I wanted to win those state football championships, or I wanted to get a college degree, or finish my master’s degree, or get my teaching job, win that award.

“And after that [final concussion] happened, none of it seemed to matter to me anymore. I just started to pay more attention to my surroundings, and I started to live within that, rather than living within myself.”

Witcher, the eldest of four in a navy family, bounced around the country all his childhood until finally landing in Edina for his first year. He was in his late twenties when a concussion and mini-stroke left him bedridden for a month. To recover, he started walking around Lake Harriet in Minneapolis. Slowly.

“It was just as the bird migration was starting and I was sitting on a bench resting, trying to let go of my dizziness, and I started noticing things I had never seen before” , did he declare.

“The first powerful experience I had was when I saw a scarlet tanager, which is not the rarest of birds, but it’s not a bird you see very often.

“Something clicked,” he said. “As I walked from then on, I started looking for the birds more and more.”

He bought a cheap camera, but soon realized that “taking a picture of a little bird is one of the hardest things you can do. I really had no idea what in what I was getting into”.

After wandering around with his “shitty little camera” for a while, he moved on to a better camera and better lenses.

“For maybe a month of my life, I was [re-]learning to walk, regaining some stamina and ability to function in society, and I was doing that by walking around the lake and taking these pictures and doing my little scavenger hunts through the bird books trying to figure out what that I saw. “

He took photography classes and a naturalist course at Sugarloaf Cove Nature Center, where he began volunteering and catching, banding, releasing, and recapturing birds. He became addicted to the educational and conservation aspects of his new therapy.

His own journey was inspired by seeing tiny birds making their round-trip treks of thousands of miles.

“It was really peaceful and it opened up these new worlds,” he said. “I realized that I had this hole in my life to fill, because sport had been my life. I started hiking, I started fly fishing and during that time I started to observe more and more birds.”

He returned to teaching and began taking classes and doing research at Sugar Loaf, Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center, and Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory. Additionally, his budding photography skills made him an in-demand concert photographer for First Avenue and the State and Orpheum theaters.

“I love teaching, I love the outdoors, and then just the fact that I was able to be outside after what had been such a crisis for me, that kind of saved me,” he said. he declares.

“The biggest parts of my identity were gone. My friends that I made through football, I couldn’t see them. All of that was gone from my life and I needed to fill it, and I found something something that made me so happy, something that I probably would have laughed at maybe a decade ago.”

Now, many Witchger nights are spent in the woods of northern Minnesota, catching, tagging, photographing, and searching for owls.

“Owls, as I’m sure most people know, when you see one, it’s almost like a religious experience,” he said. “They’re only really active at night, and you’re lucky to see or hear one. When you do some research, [at] Hawk Ridge for example, we catch an average of 1200 owls per fall. So last season I was working there and a few nights I caught over 100 in one night.”

Catch owls — great horned owl, long-eared, barred, northern buzzard, boreal, etc. — “requires a lot of practice and a lot of practice. and let them go. When you see them, their faces are so charismatic. Looks like they all have different personalities. Some of them look angry, others look happier, like they’re laughing at you.

When he’s alone with the owls, does he ruminate on what got him there?

“It was never intentional, it was never my goal,” he said. “None of those things were. But they all kind of filled that empty space in my life that existed. They were probably my greatest sources of joy. energy disappear, your desire to be social disappears I am an introvert to begin with so there was almost nothing else to get me out of the house and feel like I was involved in society other that this search or go take pictures.

“It really got me through some dark times, because another side effect of traumatic brain injury is depression and anxiety. So physical activity is going to help you. And then just those amazing experiences that you get from seeing a new species, hiking a new trail, seeing a band play an amazing set – all of these things give you that jolt you need to take you to the next thing.

“If it weren’t for these things, I can’t imagine where my life would be right now.”

Jim Walsh is a freelance writer from Minneapolis.