Core Sound Waterfowl Museum & Heritage Center

Right next door to the Harkers Island Visitors Center is the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum & Heritage Center, a museum-gallery combo that is relatively new and, despite appearances, separate and distinct from all the government-owned Visitors Center. Private funding officially opened this building in 2003, and those very same sources opened the gallery wing in 2009. The Core Sound Waterfowl Museum & Heritage Center is run primarily by volunteers.

The education hall was the first to open, dedicated single-mindedly to ducks, geese, swans and whatever else qualifies as native waterfowl. Flying in tandem with all that, it is a haven for carvers, artists, boat builders, photographers and quilters. Winners of the NC Heritage Award have their craft items on display, as long as they are from Carteret County. Watercolorists are well represented in an exhibit of Duck Stamp Contest winners, an annual competition run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

For 50 years, the duck stamp contest has functioned as a nationwide talent search to come up with the winning artwork that will be affixed on every hunting license that is issued with duck-hunting privileges. Duck stamps are also sold by the U.S. Postal Service. The artwork in this exhibit evokes the dramatic bird portraits of John James Audubon, 1785-1851, for whom the Audubon Society is named — white background, extreme realism, almost a photograph.

That same loving attention to detail, the graceful arch of a duck’s neck, the subtle nuances of its many-colored feathers, the seemingly tranquil repose of the bird even though its feet may be paddling frantically underwater, is brought to life – or to wood – yet again and just as vividly with the duck decoys. It probably does not take this level of skill and artistry to fool a duck, but somewhere along the line the decoy art form took off and flew far beyond its original intent. At some point this folk art migrated from the marshes and waterways to the mantle and the bookcase, as can be seen in the gathering room and in the library.

A Gentleman’s Quarters

The gathering room at the center of everything is a wide-open space that might be considered a sumptuous living room. With its deep-cushioned seating clustered around a hearth, this room is dedicated to the memory of a founding board member. His portrait is displayed on an easel and his name was Billy Smith.

Billy Smith was from Atlantic, one of those small towns along Highway 70, and his commercial fishing fleet was based in Beaufort. He was affiliated with Ducks Unlimited and he also owned Luther Smith’s Fish House in Atlantic. He and his son-in-law were killed in an accident when a rogue wave capsized their boat and they became entangled in their own nets. Behind the gathering room is a library, its shelves lined with books and duck decoys. In a small dark room beyond that, oral histories can be seen and heard at computer stations. In the adjacent wing, the education hall contains a large multifunction room, confirming the sneaking suspicion that this entire facility is all about community get-togethers, oyster roasts and pig pickin’s.

Upstairs

That sense of community is strong enough to knock you down on the second floor. Exhibits have been set up representing each small Down East town, and the communities themselves are responsible for their own displays. Typically, it is clubs or church groups that take on this project, and they swap out their memorabilia from time to time just to keep it interesting. Except the Portsmouth Village display which, as we already know from our visit next door at the Visitors Center, is abandoned. Museum staff and volunteers put that one together in memory of the residents of the former Portsmouth Village.

The overall effect is one of a very well-stocked antique shop: quilts, needlework, old-time ovens, ironing boards, photos, furniture, even a post office window. Quilts are all over the place, both old and new, some of them telling stories that can be read by those who are skilled in the language of quilts, and some that contain small contributions from just about every quilter in the county. There is another floor up above this one, and that is where they keep the panoramic view. From a lofty balcony, you can look down on treetops and out over the sound. From this vantage point, you can even see the Cape Lookout Lighthouse and Cape Lookout. Also, in early December you have a birdseye view of the big tents set up in the parking lot as they get ready for Waterfowl Weekend and Decoy Festival.

Festivals

When the halls have been decked by the first weekend in December, the time is ripe to hold the Waterfowl Weekend at the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and the Decoy Carvers Festival at Harkers Island Elementary School. That’s right on the main road and there are signs – you can’t miss it.

A Friday night preview party kicks off Waterfowl Weekend, known as the Seafood and Wild Game Extravaganza. Saturday and Sunday are a concoction of art, food and music stirred in with storytelling and an auction of high-end collectibles (decoys, guns, art, etc.). Carvers, sculptors, model boat builders and photographers set up next to the guys hanging nets, building duck blinds, spinning yarns and cooking up a big meal of Core Sound favorites (stewed shrimp, scallop fritters, homemade chili). You might get real brave and find out what a sweet puppy is.

A shuttle runs between Waterfowl Weekend at the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum (where admission is free) and the Decoy Carvers Festival at the Elementary School (where there is an admission charge). The Decoy shindig is a variation on the same theme: auctions, antique decoys, retriever demonstrations, duck calling, loon calling and head whittling. The Wildlife Resources Commission opens its Safari Trailer for the general amusement of children, and kids also get to paint a decoy any ridiculous color they want.

Soundside and Willow Pond Loops

A couple of nature trails weave around the Visitors Center and the Museum, in some places a boardwalk, in others bare naked ground. The Soundside Loop is the longest, 4/5 of a mile running the waterfront from the Visitors Center to a platform overlooking all 22,000 acres of the Core Sound. As the brochure explains, the Core Sound is named for the Coree Indians. From the platform it is possible to see where saltwater meets and mingles with fresh, and to see and hear wading birds, migrating songbirds, maybe even some red-throated and common loons.

The Willow Pond Loop is a 1/3-mile trail through the maritime forest near the Museum, encircling Willow Pond and running parallel for a short stretch to an old landing strip built after World War II. Duck Blind Overlook is another wooden platform that invites lingering and listening because, with any luck, you could see a White Ibis, a graceful bird with a down-curved bill that fishes in this pond.