To read about this year’s event, click: Waterfowl Festival is an island morale booster
Text and photos by Peter Vankevich
Nathan Spencer, this year’s Ocracoke Waterfowl Festival’s featured carver, loves the challenge of carving all kinds of birds, including the festival’s featured decoy, his Ring-necked Duck.
He has spent a lifetime on Ocracoke having been born on the property where his house is located on Lighthouse Road.
The Waterfowl Festival will be from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, April 17, at the Berkley Barn and grounds.
A graduate of the Ocracoke School’s class of 1968, Nathan has had a variety of jobs over his career. Many know him for his work as the meat cutter at the Variety Store the past several years. For 10-plus years, he worked the dredges for the N.C. Ferry Division. Then for a long time, he became a commercial fisherman working his trawler, the Miss Miriam, named after his youngest daughter.
His fishing included shrimping, floundering, crabbing and “anything that I could do in this area.” He would sometimes take his boat down to near the Georgia line.
“I never did go into Georgia,” he said. “I went down to Hilton Head, South Carolina, for shrimping.” He also worked on other trawlers up to the Virginia line.
In 1999, he sold his boat, ending his fishing career, and took what he thought would be a temporary job for Hyde County, running the solid waste facility, now called the Ocracoke Convenience Site.
“At that time, it was nothing but recycling,” he said. The “temporary job” lasted until 2014 and included monitoring dredged sand removal at the N.C. Ferry’s South Dock on the north end of Ocracoke.
Both responsibilities aided his wood carving. At the solid waste facility, people would drop off vegetative matter for grinding in a woodchipper.
“I got a lot of wood I could use for carving,” he said, such as red cypress from old homes being renovated, juniper from wood planks and a lot of red cedar.
He credits his great-uncles, Charlie and John Tolson, who mentored him into becoming a fisherman, with piquing his interest in wood carving.
“They taught me how to handle a knife,” he said. “We used to make little boats out of cedar shingles and sail them across the creek. That’s when I started working with a knife and working with wood. I kept it up, pretty much all my life, even though most of it, I was a full-time commercial fisherman.”
While at South Dock, he had time on his hands waiting for the dump trucks to come and go, giving him the opportunity to whittle.
“I initially carved mostly boats,” he said, “but my friend, Tom Leonard, who was an excellent carver said, ‘Why don’t you try carving birds?’”
Nathan got another source of inspiration from some family members.
In his early teens, he would observe his uncle Herman whittle in his home located where Spencer’s Market is today.
“Around the time Tom got me interested in carving, my wife Janet and I cleaned out a shed for Patsy Williams, who is my cousin John Simpson’s mother,” he said.
John is one of the founders and current president of the Ocracoke Island Decoy Carvers Guild. In the shed was one of John’s carvings of a bird in flight that he carved when he was very young.
“I brought it home and studied it and I thought, ‘I can do that,’” Spencer said.
That was his start on the birds, first with geese and since then just about any bird. The carvings were small at first, and he progressed to making larger birds mostly because he was asked to make them by different people.
“I pretty well taught myself what to do,” he said. “I’m gonna say it comes natural. Put a piece of wood in my hand. It’s in my head as to what I want it to look like. And my hands make it look that way.”
But he says the painting was a bit hit-and-miss, a challenge because he had never painted before.
“When I started, I couldn’t draw a stick figure,” he said. “That just wasn’t in my bag; I just couldn’t do it. I can sit down now and draw myself a pattern. And a lot of my birds are my own patterns — not out of a book or somebody else’s pattern.”
For waterfowl carving, he prefers species he is familiar with and which he has held in his hands. Those would be local birds like Brant, Redhead, Bufflehead, Northern Pintails and Red-breasted Mergansers and, of course, the Ring-necked Duck.
One of his biggest challenges came from his friend Jimmy Willis to carve a King Eider, a bird seen in the waters of the far north and a rare visitor to the Outer Banks.
“I had never seen one in my life,” he said. “I pulled up some images on the computer and looked at them in my books and ended up ordering a pattern. The images didn’t show the bulk and the unusual face pattern was a challenge.”
When he says he can carve just about any bird, he means it.
In addition to waterfowl, he loves carving local birds including herons, egrets, Brown Pelicans, Double-crested Cormorants, and especially the smaller shorebirds like Sanderlings, Dunlins and Piping Plovers that he can carve using a single piece of wood.
Like most artists, he relies on inspiration but says it has been hard to find since Hurricane Dorian struck Ocracoke in September 2019. The hurricane’s unprecedented seven-foot-plus storm surge tore through Ocracoke village and especially his “Down Point” neighborhood of Lighthouse Road, causing massive damage to the old homes.
“I say, you have to be into it,” he says about his art. “You have to have that feeling, or you can’t do it. Since Hurricane Dorian, it’s been a struggle to go out in my shop and work because I haven’t had that inner feeling. I guess for the first year after Dorian I was still in shock.”
Despite these challenges, he is looking forward to this festival and meeting fellow lovers of the art of waterfowl carving.