VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - The Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center is in the business of showcasing creatures in settings that imitate their natural environments. The harbor seals have a pool, where they dive and sunbathe on the rocks. The loggerhead turtles glide through an aquarium, one that looks like the waters near the Chesapeake Bay Light Tower.
Beyond the river otter enclosure, just before the seahorses and the 750-gallon crab tank, a small wooden shack displays an exhibit of a different kind: the natural habitat of a guy named Charles and his wooden ducks.
His enclosure is just big enough for a workbench, stove, chair, reference books and a tree stump where he keeps his business cards. Faux windows look out onto a painted scene of waterfowl flying above a marsh.
Aquarium visitors can find him there from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., five days a week. He's the only human on display.
Charles Seidel is as much a fixture of the aquarium as the sand tiger sharks and cownose rays. He's been there for 26 years, as long as the aquarium itself has existed.
"Charlie's like a living exhibit for us," aquarium spokeswoman Joan Barns said.
In an aquarium, you'd expect the crustaceans, mollusks and fish. But a duck decoy-carving shack?
Seidel explains it this way: Yes, there are marine dwellers, and yes, there are bay animals. But the aquarium tries to showcase the history and culture of the region, too. The marsh is a big part of that, and carving shacks have always been located on the water.
In that sense, he fits right in.
The Back Bay Wildfowl Guild, a group of wild game bird enthusiasts, donated money to help the aquarium get off the ground in the 1980s, Seidel said. The aquarium decided to display a carving shack, and the guild gathered saws, scissors, photographs and fishing lures to hang on the walls to make the shack look authentic.
Volunteer carvers manned the shack in its first months, but Seidel submitted his resume for a full-time position. When the aquarium came calling, he went right to work.
Seidel grew up in New Jersey and hunted with hand-me-down decoys on the Delaware River. Look on the wall of his aquarium carving shack and you'll find two photographs of a young Seidel in the 1950s and `60s, ducks strung over his shoulders.
Hollow wooden ducks spring leaks over time. Their necks and bills break. So a neighbor showed Seidel how to repair them.
By age 13, Seidel was carving and painting.
He learned how to draw patterns and cut bodies with a band saw. He learned to shape heads with a knife. He learned hollow ducks are made with three pieces of wood, solid ones with two, and that rot-resistant white cedar makes the best kind of decoy.
Even while at sea in the Navy, Seidel carved. He brought his tools with him and taught fellow sailors the trade.
It's been said that he left a trail of sawdust and woodchips behind him.
"They always knew which ship he had been on," said Seidel's wife, Maureen.
While stationed in Puerto Rico, Seidel carved enough decoys to fill a closet. When the movers arrived to get the Seidels' things, "They were shocked when they opened that door and saw all of those," Maureen Seidel said.
Seidel's decoys are meant to be used. He insists the ducks' decorative nature is secondary, even though he uses a graining comb to etch vermiculated feathers into the ducks' wings.
"We do that for ourselves," he said, "not for the ducks."
Seidel has taught classes and traveled the country for shows. He doesn't hunt much anymore, but still, he carves. Most decoys he's either sold or given away as gifts.
At age 73, Seidel has made 4,000 of them.
The wooden birds displayed in the shack inside the aquarium's Marsh Pavilion are all his - from the ruddy duck and canvasback to the half-sized goose, Chinese Mandarin and passenger pigeon.
The hunting licenses on the wall belonged to Seidel, and he also carved the wooden dog that lies on the shack's floor, next to baskets of sandpaper and wood scraps. Seidel calls him Mr. Dudley, named after a Back Bay decoy carver.
Seidel keeps decoys in various states of completion on hand, so he can explain the process to passers-by.
Mostly they want to know what kind of wood he uses (white cedar) and how long it takes to finish a duck (seven hours, over a couple days).
Decades of hunting and decoy making have taught Seidel bird biology and waterfowl history.
Ask, and Seidel has the answer.
In an aquarium filled with jellies, lobsters and crab exhibits, he said, "I'm the only one who can talk back to you."
Information from: The Virginian-Pilot, http://pilotonline.com
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