Klas took it down and spent several minutes in a more careful investigation. It was just a hat, a fawn-brown Tyroler with a braided, black leather hatband. Its sweatband was smooth, perhaps doeskin. Except for its too-square cut, there was nothing unusual about it.
Perched on top of a crosshatched pile of alders that the beavers had felled during the summer but had not dragged to their dam at the head of their pond. That is where he found the Tyroler hat, he told me. Right out in the open, at the edge of the clearing on the downstream side of the oxbow loop in Wolf Creek. As if someone had tossed it there and left it behind, unintentionally, most likely, and had forgotten it until it was too late in the day to go back.
The Tyroler hat, it looked almost new, he said. Its sweatband was a little stained and there was a spatter of dried mud on the brim, but otherwise it could have been a first-season hat that some Orvis-coat, city-bred grouse hunter had ordered from a haberdasher’s custom shop so that he could play the role of an Austrian gentry hunter when he ventured out for the first time in the northern Minnesota aspen forests. You see that kind of thing every few years.
Klas Svenson. He said that was his name, although his short pause before he introduced himself made me doubt that was true. We were the only two patrons in the bar in Duquette at the end of an October afternoon, and having bagged three woodcock and two grouse over my hard-working dog I was in a magnanimous mood and offered to buy him a beer. He ordered a Grain Belt, so I was sure he was a local.
We talked bird hunting, and he knew a lot about the Nemadji State Forest, including the best coverts – the remote ones that most hunters skip because they are hard to get to. Klas had had a lot of good dogs, over the past forty years he told me, old-fashioned setters mostly, but his last one had passed on two years ago, and he was too old to start another. “No more grouse huntin’ for Klas,” he said. “That’s all over.”
I bought him a second Grain Belt in commiseration, and a third for bird hunters’ camaraderie. That’s when he spoke of the Tyroler hat.
He pronounced it ty-ROLL-her, but I asked him to describe it to me and knew immediately the style of hat he was talking about. No true bird hunter wore one – it would seem ridiculously affected to go dressed as an Alpiner in the Scandinavian north woods – but I had seen Tyrolean hats listed in outdoor gear catalogs. This one was a little odd, Klas said, as if someone had ordered a western Stetson from a German hat maker, one of those nineteenth century immigrants who spoke broken English with the verbs and subjects reversed, and who could accept his Americanization up to the point of proper headwear styling. Unlike most Tyroler hats, Klas said, this one did not taper as sharply toward the crown, and it had a wider brim. But it was Tyrolean just the same, including a grouse feather stuck in the hatband and a stiff curl at the back of the brim.
Letting his tale spin out freer and faster, Klas said he lifted the Tyroler from the brush pile and examined it. No nametag, no maker’s label, no date, no identification of any kind. On the back edge of the sweat band was stamped the numerals 60, followed by (7 1/2) – a concession by the stubborn little Bavarian hat maker that he would have to mark his wares with American as well as European sizes. Klas put on the hat, and it fit perfectly. Most of those old Swede farmers and loggers in the north woods have large heads and thick white hair, and Klas was no exception. Not wanting to leave the expensive hat in the wild, he crammed his ragg wool stocking cap into the pocket of his bird vest, put the Tyroler hat on his head, and went on his way.
Going silent beside me in the Duquette bar, Klas fiddled with his beer mug and made a pile of the last kernels of the popcorn in the wooden bowl between us. I sensed he was suddenly reluctant to tell me more. “Another beer?” I asked, and as the bartender took two cans of Grain Belt from the cooler (in the hope of hearing the rest of the story I was going with the flow) Klas cleared his throat and stammered, “Dats ven I start to see tings dat I don’t know before.”
“Things?” I echoed.
“Tings,” he repeated, “I don’t see before.” Minutes after donning the Tyroler hat, he said, his tri-color setter Ebba went on point in the midst of a stand of overly mature aspens, not a promising spot for a grouse to be loafing but possibly a resting spot for a flight bird woodcock that had dropped in early that morning for a day of feeding and recuperation before continuing its fifteen-hundred-mile migration south. After a good morning’s hunt, Klas already had his limit of three woodcock tucked into his vest and had no intention of shooting another, but to please Ebba he stepped in front of her with gun at the ready and kicked a blowdown aspen log to put the bird to flight.
A roaring of wings surrounded him as twenty, thirty, maybe more ruffed grouse lifted from the tangle under the bare trees in twos and threes, gray phase and red phase, flying madly on escape paths toward all points of the compass, a few crashing into aspen trunks and limbs before they could stabilize their twisting flight and zoom away on frantically beating wings, leaving a snowfall of floating feathers behind.
“Dats a ting I don’t see before,” Klas said, studying the expression on my face to learn if I was accepting this story as god’s truth or dismissing him as another crazy old Swede from the Duluth country.
“Me either,” I said, feigning my best I-believe-every-word-of-this tone of voice and body language. “But I’d sure like to see it just once in my life.”
“Yah, maybe,” said Klas. “Just the once.”
He gulped down two quick swallows of beer and told me how he had stood there in the aspen thicket, awestruck by the explosion of thirty grouse at his feet, open-mouthed, too stunned even to raise his gun to shoulder. Ebba, he said, was beyond consoling: the cornucopia moment of her partridge hunting life and he had let it slip away from her without a bird – without a shot at a bird. Of dozens in the air. What madness was this?
“I stand there shakin’,” Klas said, “and I take out my little silver flask for a swig or two of schnapps, and then I tell Ebba, ‘Girl, we go back to the truck.’”
Their walk from the Wolf Creek oxbow, across the beaver dam and up the slope toward the minimum maintenance road where the truck was parked, was at most a mile, albeit through alder bogs and aspen logging slash that made the going slow. A half hour later they were less than a hundred yards from the road when Ebba went on point again. With a premonition, Klas stepped past her nose and waited with bated breath and trembling hands for three endless seconds, four, five, before the floor of the forest erupted in a volcano of wings, a grouse blizzard, a swarm of chunky gray and russet bodies that were whirling around him.
He shouldered his old pump gun with its short, open-choked barrel and fired into the cloud, not really picking a single bird from the mass as a specific target. Three fell at his first shot, he worked the slide and fired again, and two more came down. A limit of grouse with two shots. One fluttered on the ground; the other four were stone dead. Ebba collected them and brought them to his hand one-by-one, then found and retrieved two more crips on the final leg of the walk to the truck.
Klas turned on his bar stool to face me holding out both hands, palms up, receiving the ghost birds from Ebba once more in his imagination, looking down at two red-phase ruffed grouse that I could not see. He lifted his eyes to mine. “A ting I don’t ever see before,” he said in a pleading, please-believe-me voice. And I believed him.
“The Tyroler hat…?” I asked.
“…vas on mine head,” he nodded.
By sunset on the evening of that years-ago hunt, Klas had dressed and plucked the seven birds, washed them, put them in a tub of cool water to soak, and opened both a pint bottle of peppermint schnapps and a quart of beer to sustain his memory as he pondered the events of the day. While he fried potato slices in bacon fat he glanced round to see if Ebba was sleeping on her mat by the woodstove, and he saw the Tyroler hat hanging on a hook by the door. Odd. He was sure he had left it on the dashboard of his truck.
Klas took it down and spent several minutes in a more careful investigation. It was just a hat, a fawn-brown Tyroler with a braided, black leather hatband. Its sweatband was smooth, perhaps doeskin. Except for its too-square cut, there was nothing unusual about it. Its thick felt was warm in his hands. But the north wall of his house was always chilled, sometimes cold, on October nights. The Tyroler should have felt cool. His fingers went over every inch of the hat. There was nothing to show where it had been made, or how long ago. Where it had come from, or who had worn it. He held it to his nose; its scent was an earthy blend of black soil, marsh water, wet dog, and pipe tobacco.
What more was there to know? Someone had lost a hat, and he had found it. It fit perfectly. Finders keepers. But it was odd, wasn’t it? As he was hanging it back on the hook, Klas spied a black dot on the lining of the crown. A nit? A louse? A tick. He plucked it out and discovered it was a hard grain of ground pepper. He touched it with the tip of his tongue. No, not pepper. It was black powder. The grade that a bird hunter would have used a hundred and fifty years before to charge his muzzle-loader fowling piece. For more than a century, no one hunted grouse in the depths of the Nemadji with a muzzle loader. No one. Not even the historical reenactors.
The next morning. Klas said, he and Ebba headed back to the aspen forests for another bird hunt, and it seemed perfectly normal to take the hat down from its hook and put it on his head. They went back to the Nemadji but avoided the Wolf Creek area, choosing instead to drive far along Big Tooth Ridge until the maintained road ended, then hiking along the long-untraveled loggers’ skids until they were in a hundred-acre patch of young aspen that Klas had not hunted since the Department of Natural Resources had leveled it with a clear-cut reforestation project five or six years before. Klas did not expect to find many grouse, but he wanted to explore the ground more than hunt it.
Ebba bounded out of the truck and had not covered a hundred yards of slash and brushy cover before she went on point in a thin stand of wrist-thick, fifteen-foot-tall aspens. The ground was soggy where it blended into a shallow flowage; woodcock should be here, Klas knew.
As he approached her, Ebba turned her head toward him with a glazed stare. He hurried. The morning was still cool, but his head was too warm under the Tyroler. He meant to keep his eyes on Ebba, but a pulsing shadow came between him and the mid-morning sun, accompanied by the squawk and pip and clamor of petulant voices, and he looked up to see the flights of ducks. Hundreds of ducks, thousands of ducks. Many thousands. Green-headed and orange-footed mallards, pintails, canvasbacks, bluebills. Flying inland from Gitche Gumee, from Lake Superior. But there could not be that many ducks on the Superior wetlands. Not in all of Minnesota.
Klas said his knees turned watery and weak, and he leaned against a stout aspen to stay upright. The world seemed to go in and out of focus before his eyes, and a cold wind began to blow from the northwest, stripping the last of the brittle leaves from the trees and sending them swirling past him. With the waves of ducks and geese still passing over them, Ebba held staunch on point in the slash and Klas took a few shaky steps toward her and brought his gun up to ready position.
But he realized it was no longer his battered old pump-action shotgun. It was an exposed hammer, percussion cap, sidelock, double gun – a muzzle-loader with damascus barrels, a brass-tipped ramrod beneath, trim checkering on the grip of a tightly grained walnut stock, and the name William Harris & Co. engraved on the lock plates. A powder flask hung from a strap over his shoulder, and a leather pouch on his belt was heavy with what he knew, somehow, was a canister of lead shot and a packet of waxed cardboard wads.
Compelled and predestined as a man in a dream, he cocked the gun’s curved hammers, took the inexorable step in front of Ebba’s point, and was ready when the expected flurry of grouse, a dozen or more, flushed at his feet. The gun came to his shoulder, balanced and fitting perfectly, and he took two birds with the right barrel and one with the left on the covey rise. The wind carried away the cloud of gray-brown, sulfur-smelling smoke that had burst from the muzzles when the caps ignited the black power loads, and Ebba raced to retrieve the downed grouse.
The hollow boom-boom of the two shots roused something huge and black and bulky from a thicket to his left, and Klas watched as a trio of woodland bison clambered to their feet a hundred yards away and stared at him in curiosity. The nearest was a shaggy, high-humped bull that must have weighed more than a ton. They did not seem frightened, but the noise of the gun and the running of the ghost-white dog clearly unsettled them, and they ambled off to the west, disappearing quickly in the brush. Klas could see that they were headed for the safety of the towering white pine trees, hundreds of feet high, many feet in girth, that blocked out the western half of the sky.
With the grouse in the canvas game bag that hung from the back of his belt, Klas was more than ready for this fantastic, preposterous morning’s hunt to be over – and forgotten if possible. He checked the position of the sun, knowing he had to go south to find the skidder path and eventually his truck, but nothing in the landscape looked familiar. I’m not lost, he assured himself. As long as I keep walking south I’ll hit the Big Tooth Ridge Road.
He never found the skidder path, but he stumbled onto a well-used game trail that wound mostly southeast, and he followed it for more than a mile, sure that it would intersect the road. About noon, he saw three thin lines of smoke ahead, clearly rising from the campfires of a deer hunter’s camp, and he worked his way toward them. As he crested a low ridge, he looked down into a bowl-shaped depression of ground alongside a clear creek and saw a half dozen wickiups, stick-and-thatch shelters that looked like winter lodgings that would have been built by a band of Ojibwe four hundred years ago. On the opposite side of the clearing a tall, raven-haired woman dressed in a buckskin skirt and jacket emerged from the woods carrying an armload of firewood. When she caught sight of Klas, she dropped her load and gave a shrill cry.
Madness. He had kept it at arm’s length all day, but it seized him then and ripped all reason and reality from his mind. He threw aside his gun and ran, ran frantically, without purpose or direction or control or even awareness, until his lungs collapsed and his heart burst out of his chest. He lay gasping, insensate, exhausted on the forest floor, waiting for the violent and terrible end of this nightmare, whatever it may be. His face and hands were scratched and bleeding, his pants were ripped and his shirt was torn open in front. The Tyroler hat was still firmly fixed to his head.
Ebba licked his cheek and whined her concern, and Klas opened his eyes. He was lying on the edge of the skidder path, less than fifty feet from his truck. He forced himself up to his knees, then to his feet, and staggered to the pickup. He was sure about nothing that had happened that morning, but he was sure of one thing now: he was driving to the Wolf Creek bridge.
Standing at the bridge railing above the narrow, fast-flowing creek, its waters stained the bronze-gold color of sassafras tea by the autumn leaves that had cascaded into it by the millions, Klas looked northwest along its course to where it would loop around the beaver dam oxbow in three miles before snaking its way through the wild of the Nemadji Forest to the Net River. Although the wind had dropped it still cut his raw face with a knife-edge chill, but the afternoon sunshine was warm. He was warmed, too, by the gratification of what he was about to do.
A twist and a tug and the reluctant Tyroler hat came off his head. He held it in both hands and felt a powerful urge to put it back on. Except for a half dozen seeds of devil’s beggar’s tick clinging to the brim, it looked the same as the day he had found it – almost new, little worn. Klas leaned over the railing and with a backhand toss sent the Tyroler sailing down toward the dark surface of the creek. But some eddying current of the wind must have caught it and given it wings because it lifted away from the water and went soaring like a kite that had broken free from its tether, gliding far, far, far downstream before it disappeared around a bend and was lost to his sight in the aspen forest. He had no desire to search for it, he said, not that day or any other.
“Do you want another beer?” I asked him
“No, I’ve had enough. I’ve had too much,” Klas said, his voice slurred. He rubbed his hands together as he looked at me out of the fog of rheumy eyes. “The Tyroler hat – you don’t believe me,” he said
“Yes, yes, I do” I hastened to say, but something in my face must have given me away.
“No, you don’t,” said Klas. He stood and put on his jacket. “Well, it’s just a story. I don’t care if you believe it or not,” he said. And without another word he left the bar, got into his rusty old truck, and drove away.
Three days later, at the end of my hunting trip, I went back to the Duquette bar, hoping to see him again, but he wasn’t there. I asked the spunky little old lady behind the bar if Klas Svenson was around, but she gave me a confused look.
“The Svensons, they’re all over by Moose Lake,” she said. “They don’t do their drinking here. And I don’t know of a Klas Svenson. Never met him. And I know everybody.”
“The bartender who was here last week…?” I asked.
“Gone. Fired him,” she said. “Had his hand in the till.”
I had spent the day walking a section of Wolf Creek, looking for the oxbow loop and its beaver dam and pond, but I had not found it. Late in the afternoon, I flagged down a forester’s pickup on a logging road and asked about it. He thought a moment, remembered the oxbow I must be describing, and then told me it had been washed out and the creek’s channel straightened by the floods of the spring of 2012. The beaver dam and pond were about a half mile further downstream now, but all that remained of the oxbow was a shallow, muddy pond, surrounded by scrubby alder and dogwood.
I was about to ask if anyone had found a hat, a Tyroler, along that stretch of the creek, but how would he know? And I didn’t want to open that can of worms anyway.
Every October I hunt grouse and woodcock in the Nemadji Forest, hoping – and dreading – that I’ll find the Tyroler. I’ve asked myself a hundred times: Would I put it on?
Until I find it, I don’t have the answer.
More stories about hunting, bird dogs, bird guns, and life in the North Country are published in my three collections of essays and two novels, all available through Amazon.com at Jerry Johnson Author Page