On a warm September morning a couple of years ago I was enjoying coffee with friends when my cell phone rang. Noticing who was calling, I switched to speaker and set it on the table.
“What’s happening?” I asked.
“I’m getting a little bored so I thought I’d give you a call,” the caller replied, “I’m about 30 feet from a sow grizzly and her two cubs. They’re just napping. Not much to photograph. Oops, I think they’re starting to stir … better go.”
My coffee companions rolled their eyes. One of them even laughed and added, “Yah, right.”
It was clear they didn’t know who had been on the phone. If they did, they would have realized he had no need to embellish. It was just another morning in Roger Hill’s life.
I’m sorry to report that Roger left this world on Nov. 28. No more will I receive such phone calls, because no one I know will be calling while they are within a few feet of grizzly bears. There was only one Roger Hill.
Roger became a big part of my life back in the mid-1980s. He contacted me and asked if I might give him some advice on photographing sporting events. He added that he already did some outdoor photography. That came as no surprise. I knew of Roger and his brother, Jerry, and their outstanding wildlife photography. Truth was, I learned much more from Roger than he ever did from me.
From that time on, Roger and I photographed together hundreds, if not thousands of times. He was the ultimate wildlife photographer because he seemed to know what animals were going to do before they did.
During his early years, Roger had been a hunter. He had harvested many animals, ranging from squirrels to coyotes to moose to sheep to bears.
By the time I met Roger he had hung up his guns and purchased high-end cameras and lenses. He once told me that he no longer had the desire to hunt – except with a camera.
That hunting and tracking expertise is what made him the great photographer he became. His photographs have appeared in all the major outdoor magazines. His donated photographs have meant untold income for such organizations as the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Pheasant Forever, Ducks Unlimited and many other groups.
Following Roger was no easy job. He went where the animals were and he rarely slowed down. If you wanted to get similar photos, you’d better be in shape. Many was the time I tried to keep up with him as he climbed mountainsides in pursuit of wild sheep and goats. I still remember watching his long legs ever climbing like a daddy longlegs.
Although Roger had countless photos of huge whitetail bucks, eye-popping rooster pheasants, strutting wild turkeys and cute fox, his true love was the beasts that inhabit such places as Wyoming, Montana, Alaska and the Yukon. After retirement, Roger would visit them at least once a year. There he would live with the creatures and capture them with his camera. It is with that in mind that I will share one more story.
Without a firearm, Roger relied on pepper spray for protection from the more powerful animals. One recent fall, he came across a monster bull elk who had put Roger in his sights. He made a pass at him with his huge antlers. Roger realized that if he sprayed the charging animal in the eyes he would be blinded and then would wander off into the woods to die. So he sprayed him in the chest and let the pepper drift up to his nostrils. It worked. The elk quickly departed.
Yes, that was Roger Hill. Who else would be so concerned over the welfare of a charging animal, hell bent on gouging him, than Roger? As recently retired Iowa Department of Natural Resources technician Pat Schlarbaum puts it, “Roger Hill is a very tall and broad burr oak tree in conservation matters. His passing is a great, great loss; yet his inspiration is greater.”
Ed Rood is former publisher of the Tri-County Times. He and his wife, Sharon, live near Cambridge.