J. P. Hand, master decoy carver, Goshen, New Jersey

Every few months or so, as part of our gig at Atlantic Rancher, we head off on visual documentarian journeys more commonly known as photoshoots, that serve two main purposes. One, we get our new products photographed in the authentic environments that inspired them and worn by some of the wiliest characters you are unlikely to meet. And two, we get to scratch that perpetual itch, curiosity and wandering, while getting hands dirty and faces perked by saltwater and wind… all of which is usually accompanied by some good ol’ out-of-order behavior at the end of each day.

We pick places that interest us…not always, but usually somewhere along the Atlantic tidewaters because that’s where most of us grew up…swaths of tidal wilderness and off-the-grid spots that hold powerful memories of special times spent with extraordinary characters. These boondoggles have taken us from Bath, [Maine] to Bimini, [Bahamas]…from Dingle [Ireland] to Cojimar, [Cuba]. Even to places like Wisdom, MT…far from the Atlantic, but still on the ranch.

We travel light…my wife, me and a few co-conspirators - usually by car, often by boat and an occasional seaplane or horse. With just two items on the itinerary - the arrival date and the departure date - we are on a determined and purposeful hunt in and around little-known, infrequently traveled haunts…in search of the characters that we’ve heard and read about who animate these places with their uncommon wit.

And every now and then, our lines come tight all at once. This happened on our last romp in October 2020, when on the way to our photoshoot in Beach Haven, NJ, we detoured into the little town of Goshen, near the southern tip of Cape May, to visit with a local legend, J. P. (Jamie) Hand - master decoy carver and part-time waterfowl guide. Our “raconteur in residence”, Capt. Karl Anderson, had been telling us about J.P. for some time and through some backwater connections was able to arrange a “visit.”

Turning onto the gravel road, past the centuries-old and weather scraped clapboard farmhouse, a few ornery roosters and a pile of hens scattered, announcing our arrival. Stepping out of the truck we were instantly transported back to a place stiffened in time. And there, in the shade of very old and slightly leaning barn, sat J.P. Hand…head-down on his carving bench, making quick work of a block of Jersey Cedar with a short-handled ax. Not a single power tool in sight, save for a bandsaw tucked off in a corner. Flanked by two young apprentices, each straddling carving benches and scraping away, wouldn’t say boo if they had a mouth full of it, only the rhythmic sound of steel smacking wood filled the air. It was like we didn’t exist. For a moment, I thought we’d made a wrong turn. Wild horses stampeding by would have gotten more attention. Then, after what seemed like eternity, came J. P.’s welcoming smile accompanied by a disarming, gravelly voice, “howdy folks.”

And quickly from there, with a full dose of humility and gratitude, Jamie opened up his world to us…his upbringings, stories about mentors that took him under their wings, the workshop, his collection of antique gunning skiffs, his in-process carvings, and best of all, tales of his days gunnin’ the salt meadows that kept us riveted.

Two hours into a rollercoaster conversation that at times sounded a lot like ducks on corn, it became clear that we had just encountered a man whose life and times was a replica of an era long since faded into American wildfowling history. We were in the presence of a fully animated, 19th century human storybook, belied by its age, recounting for us, scene by scene and character by character, a wilderness and a way of living few will ever truly appreciate, let alone experience.

In the background, light-footed and on-point as a blue heron stalking its prey, Jessica Haydahl our “visual documentarian”, captured it all…in a striking series of photographs we are proud to share throughout our network. Through her lens we see the essence of a man whose only real “job” has been carving traditional New Jersey working decoys for waterfowlers and collectors, and to make certain that his legacy, and that of his beloved teachers, is passed on to the next generation of decoy carvers and conservationists.

To us J. P. Hand is, with every cell of his being, an authentic Atlantic Rancher. We are privileged to have befriended him and honored to have him join a distinguished group of men and women who for the past 25 years have lived on the pages of our catalogs and on our website and have defined what it means to “live life right, with character and purpose” …as an Atlantic Rancher.  

February 21, 2021 — ENGLE SAEZ

Leave a comment

Please note: comments must be approved before they are published.