This article was originally published in the 2020 winter edition of Michigan Out-of-Doors — Michigan’s premium outdoor journal.
By: Nick Green
The dirt road left washboarded by spring’s transition to summer amplified a chatter-like cadence before the Toyota 4Runner came to an abrupt halt. I sat on the tailgate with my dogs, Calvin and Summit, after running them in the 90-degree July heat through a tangled mess of aspen.
Great — I thought to myself. Colorful stickers covered every inch of the back windows on the SUV. I presumed an animal rights activist or do-gooder was set to exit the vehicle and provide me a tongue lashing for “abusing” my dogs in the sweltering heat. Fight or flight kicked in, and a confrontation was braced for.
Stepping from the 4Runner was a man my age with a straight-billed cap, Teva sandals and a Patagonia shirt on. Suddenly, I felt comfortable in my physical defense.
As the man approached, he smiled and said, “Nice dogs. Did you find any birds in there?”
The bokeh-like background surrounding him quickly cleared. Ruffed Grouse Society, American Woodcock Society, FISH Michigan and Got Timberdoodle stickers on the SUV came into focus. “What kind of dog is that?” he asked, pointing at my small Munsterlander, Calvin. As I peered beyond him, still not having answered any of his questions, I noticed a kennel in the back of his SUV. “What kind of dog do you have,” I retorted.
An unimaginable meeting
The year prior, in 2017, I had written a story about woodcock banding for Cadillac News. As a beat reporter for a small daily in Northern Michigan, natural resources stories were always well-received. With a deposit down on a shorthair, I decided I would start researching and writing every bird dog and hunting article I could before my editor called me out on my newfound obsession.
I came to meet Sally Downer and a couple other woodcock banders during a mid-May jaunt through what is dubbed Hoosier Valley in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. I wrote the banding story and thought I would never talk with Sally again. I did recall her mentioning a son named Abraham, though.
As I shook hands with the driver of the 4Runner, he introduced himself as Abe. The connection to Sally was immediately made, and the dots were connected. Abraham Downer came into my life at an impressionable time during my upland journey. Despite our wildly different styles, political views and, really, anything to do with our social way of life except birds and dogs, we formed a bond as two young hunters who were saved by our outdoor endeavors.
We exchanged numbers that July day and parted ways — I’m not sure either of us knew the ramifications of that chance meeting. That fall, we met for a hunt during the woodcock flights. Not knowing Abe, I decided to meet him at one of my marginal covers. The dogs pointed some birds, and we each had a few woodcock to take home.
A shared history
It wasn’t long after that fall 2018 hunt when Abe and I started to spend more time together. He invited me to his northwoods property on the Boardman River and into Sally’s home — where he stayed on weekends to get respite from the urban sprawl of mid-Michigan.
Suddenly, someone so different than myself in almost every aspect of life was becoming the person I confided in. We related over some of the more sordid times in our pasts. We shared stories about grandfathers who instilled in us love and respect for the King. And we both knew that luck had granted us the kindest, most generous women in the world to raise us.
Most importantly, we discovered ourselves through dogs. Like Abe, I was a non-traditional student and went to college after living through life’s seemingly high highs and low lows. Both of us brought our first bird dogs home as late-20-somethings getting ready to graduate college
Sally and her husband Dave instilled in Abe a love for bird dogs from a young age. And even though my love for our four-legged best friends didn’t start with bird dogs, it certainly came full-circle when I met Abe.
Abe isn’t the first friend of mine to have differing political views, and he won’t be the last. Whether it is his belief that folks should be more intentional in their firearm ownership, using them as tools for hunting instead of just a toy — while I believe we should be able to, quite literally, own a tank — or his uncanny ability to call me out when I am stereotyping someone for the way they look, he has undoubtedly helped me grow into a better person.
Abe is the first friend of mine who I can have a knock-down-dragout political argument with and, two minutes later, hi-five when we remember our dogs and what brought us together.
A new outlook
Our differences don’t end with our political views, either. Abe’s a dyed-in-the-wool setter guy, and he has probably never done any training beyond “whoa” with his brilliant setter, Remi. He regularly mentions that he has no great love for GSPs — I am not sure he is to be trusted still on that one. Whereas, I own an array of different dog breeds, am much more diligent with training and think that hipsters with their long-haired dogs better get to brushing. However, the only thing that is constant is change, said Heraclitus.
Fall of 2019 brought about my third annual Mudbats, Drummers and Greenheads camp. Never having a week-long guest at camp, that year was set to be different when Abe decided to also take the week off. We set up camp and began our week consisting of too many libations, missed shots and, most importantly, the dogs that saved our lives.
During that week, I learned tolerance, patience and how to navigate the tough conservations with someone so different than myself. But, no matter what, when the last splash of watered-down gin or Budweiser extinguished the evening’s fire, we retired to our respective campers with our dogs and a mutual respect for one another.
Paying a bird the utmost respect it deserves by plucking it was another lesson Abe passed on to me. He taught me culinary tactics that could make even venison liver tasty (my apologies to those who actually like the taste of liver). We have shared countless hours in the kitchen together since that first meeting, and I have to say that I have never eaten better wild game than at the end of Abe’s spatula or tongs.
Dogs brought me to Abe and closer to the upland birds I love. More importantly, bird dogs are the foundation upon which my tolerance for opposing views and differing ideas blossomed. As funny as that may sound, bird dogs were the catalyst that taught me that no argument with someone and no political stance is worth writing someone off.
This may come off as some rambling love story between two star-crossed bird hunters. And it kind of is. But it is also the story of who I have become: someone who can listen to all sides of an argument, someone not so quick to judge and someone who can see through partisan ideals and realize that each individual person has faults and triumphs.
Abe will spread my ashes if I pass before him. I imagine that feeling is reciprocated should he pass before me. We will see each other through the best and worst of times that have yet to come. And it all started from a happenstance meeting next to an aspen stand over bird dogs on a sultry July day.
Partisanship, by definition, is an extreme bias towards something— although we often default to associating it with politics. In this case, partisanship towards the dogs and birds that unite us made me a better and more rounded person and brought me a lifelong hunting buddy. This journey with Abe over our dogs has provided me the ability to withstand a little discomfort when trading opposing views with a fellow hunter, and for that, I am thankful.