Sunday, May 10, 2015

NC Harkers Island, Decoy Carvers, Core Sound Museum, Cape Lookout National Seashore

     This is the second entry on Harkers Island - if you missed the first article, please Click Here. 

     Harkers Island's population grew considerably in 1899 when a violent hurricane came through this area.  Shackleford Banks, which is the island that runs parallel to the coast just south of Cape Lookout was on the eye of the hurricane.  There had been a whaling and fishing village named Diamond City that sat atop a 40 dune.  The hurricane wiped out the dune - and most of the town with it. Seeing how vulnerable they were, the majority of the survivors moved to Harkers Island, just across the sound.

     These were not the first people to abandon Shackleford Island though.  The Spanish were here and took off a few centuries earlier.  Just as we saw When we Visited Cumberland Island, Ga, the only real remnant of the Spanish is the descendants of the horses they left behind.

    Unlike Cumberland where the horses have a lot of dense underbrush to hide in, on Shackleford Island they are pretty easy to spot.  Above is a flier on the wall at the ranger station on Harkers Island, which shows how closely the locals here track these horses.

     Harkers Island still has a lot of that "small town" feel, but it is rapidly being developed.

     Many of the shoreline properties belonged to fishermen or boat builders.  Since regulations and imports have strangled both industries here, many have opted to sell their prime real estate and get out.

     But there are many of the old structures left.  

     Several old fisheries have long shut down - here is one with a for sale sign on it.

     As these properties get sold, one by one, folks with enough money to build a second home or a vacation rental property snatch the lots up and build.   

     As these huge homes are built, property values increase.  As property values increase, taxes go up.  Those who are already struggling from the the loss of their livelihood are forced to sell.  And the cycle repeats - a cycle that has become an old tale in these coastal communities.

      And as we saw on Daufuskie Island in South Carolina, many of those who lived on their lands for subsistence have had their properties literally stolen when they get behind on taxes.  It is not mine to judge whether losing these cultures is a good or bad thing, but it is nice to see pockets of variety after being in so many areas begin to appear generic for their duplication.

     One thing noted here from early times are the winds that blow through this area.  Many places talk about their sea breeze - here it is more often a stiff breeze or fairly windy.  All about the island are trees who have yielded, but not surrendered, to this unrelenting force.

     I really liked this next one - kind of a naturally made umbrella for the picnic table.  You could actually fit several under its sweeping branches.

     This outer tip of the island is the main offices of the Cape Lookout National Seashore. 

     From here ferries run out to Shackleford Banks or to the lighthouse.  There are also the archaeological remains of several long gone settlements out on these banks.

     About a quarter of the ranger station serves as a visitor center, museum and theater.

     I highly recommend the video that is played here - it is the best of any National or State presentation I have seen.  It is narrated by Meryl Streep and covers the geography and a bit of the history of the area.  It is really a work of art - I went back to watch it again on my second day here.

     Next door is a great community museum.

     You can tell the museum was put together by a number of talented people who really care about the heritage of this area.  It includes a large conference hall that is used for teaching local crafts and promoting local art.

     This is a view from an upper balcony - two levels further up is a catwalk from which you can look out over the sound.  I didn't have time to go into the quilt making in this area, but it is the best I have seen.  Perhaps this is descended from the skills required to hand weave the nets for the ocean trawlers.

     The story I want to focus on here is ducks - wooden ducks.   Ducks that are made of wood and painted.

     But not the two dimensional kind.  Three dimensional hand carved ducks that are used as decoys to lure ducks in for hunters.

     The museum has hundreds of locally crafted duck decoys.  This is not an everyday collection - and duck carving is not just an occasional hobby for some.  In 2007, a pair of ducks carved in the 1915 through 1917 era by one Elmer Crowell fetched $ 1.1 million.  In that same auction, 31 old decoys brought a total of $ 7.5 million.

      These carvings encompass a huge variety of waterfowl and use a wide variety of mediums to form them.  Most popular today of course is the wooden duck.

     The Core Sound Decoy Carver's Guild has their own meeting place complete with a training center on the other end of the island, and annual contests are a big deal.  The big contest each December draws upward of 2,500 folks.

     I didn't see much on the history of duck carving on this island, but a few photos suggest that it goes back a long way.

     This is a skill taught to the European settlers by the American Indians.  Remnants of duck decoys over 2,000 years old have been found; remarkable works crafted out of grasses and reeds.  So it would not be surprising if the tradition of decoy building on this island predates European settlement.  There are however records of Europeans tying a live captive duck to a stake to attract other birds.   (Hence the alternate definition of the word "drake" which means a living bait used to lure prey.)

    So this originally was a utilitarian craft - these were necessary implements  if you wanted to successfully hunt waterfowl.  There were no picture books or instructions - what you needed was a block of wood, an axe, a knife and a good eye that could recreate the shape and coloration of the specie you were hunting.

     With all of the boat building on this island, there probably was an ample supply of good pieces of dried wood to use, and with the frequent storms that hit the area there undoubtedly was ample time for fishermen to sit and carve their decoys in preparation for hunting season.

     While there has not been an easily recognized historical figure for this craft in generations past, there is one now.  Meet Wayne Davis.

     Now, I met and talked with Mr. Davis for better than an hour, but most of what I can tell you about him had to come from others.  He is soft spoken and quick to talk about the talents and accomplishments of others rather than his own.  Among many other things, he was the first Fire Chief here on Harkers Island.  (The photos yesterday of the model boat building plant were in his shop.)

     Wayne started making ducks in his early teens - and his first few efforts were not of the solid wood variety - they are what is called "canvas backs."

     These are decoys built with ribbing over which canvas is stretched and painted.  They are not nearly as common as the full wooden variety.

     Wayne built his woodshop on a pond where migrating ducks frequently land.

     It is a peaceful spot, and currently Wayne has a few dozen ducks under construction.  Tupelo Gum wood is the favorite wood - it is dense and yet easy to carve.  It also stands up over time better - it doesn't tend to develop cracks after a few years.  

     Wayne carves and paints over sixty species of waterfowl.  Here is a shelf with some of his miniatures.

     Wayne has made over 8,000 ducks since he started carving in 1957 - quite a number.  He sells his miniatures for under $50, but when they are auctioned many have brought double that.  The value of a decoy, like any piece of art, is tied to the quality of the reputation of the artist.  Other full sized duck's of Wayne's have brought $3,000 at auction.  

     Complementing Wayne's artistry is what I am told is the best buoy painter in North Carolina - his wife of 47 years, Lana.  

     On top of raising three children (7 grands now,) this couple has built a thriving gift shop here on Harkers Island.

     In keeping with the island's nature, much of the gift shop floor displays items of a wide variety that are crafted by locals.

    28 year ago on his birthday, Wayne used about starting a club for local decoy carvers.

     He took action on that thought, and the guild that resulted now attracts thousands of visitors a year to the island.  Last Saturday was a loon carving competition, and there must have been a hundred or hundred and fifty here just for that event.

     The talent of these folks cannot be overstated.  These are pieces of art - one would hate to actually put one in the water.

     As they have grown more artistic in nature, the poses struck have become more diverse as well.

     Most of these are in glass display cases, so the photography doesn't really do them justice.  

     So, where the boat building skill is being rapidly lost, the decoy carving skill is actually being enhanced.  There are a couple of teaching classrooms for the art about the island, and a good number of the island's young folks are embracing it.  

   Upstairs at the local museum, the exhibits celebrate the histories of many of the surrounding towns.

     They have interesting names - Salter Path Sea Level, Atlantic - and each town here has its own unique bits of personality.

     If you want a sit-down meal when you visit Harkers Island, I recommend The Fish Hook.

     There was a restaurant that was open for many years by a beloved local lady who passed on a while back.  After sitting vacant for a spell, it was taken over and reopened by Heather Brushwood of nearby Cape Hatteras.

     Heather's place has the only good Wifi I could find on the island, and Heather took it upon herself to feed me the couple of days I was here.  Having cared deeply for the previous owner of this restaurant, the locals have been a bit slow to respond to a new owner.  But they are starting to frequent it - no one can stay away from awesome food for too long.  I hope the best for Heather and her clan.

     Which brings us to today's "Faces in the Crowd."

     This was one of the hand carved and painted birds at the Guild's clubhouse.  

     And today's parting shot - 

Turn-about is fair play, eh?

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Have an awesome day !!

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