The carving shed at Wickaninnish Inn: where artists create woodworks by the Tofino surf
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Original Article by Gail Johnson for the Georgia Straight
"Feather George" makes eagle quills out of reclaimed cedar--and has a special drink named after him at the Pointe Restaurant
Tofino’s Wickaninnish Inn is known for a lot of things.
A Relais & Chateaux property, it has dramatic ocean views from its perch on Chesterman Beach. Its amiable, hands-on managing director, Charles McDiarmid (whose dad, Howard, was the town’s only doctor from 1955 to 1970 and who dreamed of building a hotel in the remote place) is credited for popularizing winter storm watching, making the wildly beautiful piece of B.C. a year-round destination.
What better way to watch rain fly sideways, propelled by whipping winds, as enormous waves smash against black rock than to take it all in from a luxury suite tucked under a Hudson’s Bay blanket or in a windowside soaker tub facing the Pacific?
It’s home to the Pointe Restaurant, which is to Tofino what Bishop’s is to Vancouver: the fine-dining establishment was the first in the area to embrace and celebrate local, seasonal, sustainable ingredients; its standards are as high now as when it opened in 1996. Everything is made from scratch, even the inn's butter.
Then there’s the hotel’s exquisite art, much of it Indigenous, and signature adze work. The late master carver Henry Nolla did a significant portion of the property's woodwork, the beloved long-haired hippie using a hand plane to give the inn’s main doors, beams, and fireplace mantles a smooth, rippled texture that you can’t help but slide your fingers over.
What may be less known is that the Wickaninnish is also home to what’s simply called the carving shed.
Tucked into the dense rainforest by the hotel’s Beach building, steps from the sand of North Chesterman, the small cabin is where resident carvers create art from reclaimed and salvaged wood.
Nolla lived on the land adjacent to the inn for two decades, having been invited by Dr. McDiarmid to build his own place there in exchange for being the custodian and guardian of the family cabin. Over the years, he became a mentor to many woodworkers.
George Yearsley is one of them.
Day in, day out, Yearsley, better known as Feather George, can be found at the carving shed, crafting delicate eagle feathers out of red and yellow cedar. He uses the same hand plane that Nolla worked with.
In fact, it was Nolla who helped Yearsley find his passion.
Originally from Crescent Beach, Feather George was inspired to pursue carving as a vocation upon seeing Nolla work on so many wooden bowls and totem poles on the beach. (Nolla learned to carve totem poles from Roy Henry Vickers and went on to carve the front of the iconic Indigenous artist’s eponymous Tofino art gallery, a local landmark. The two worked on many other projects together.)
“I carved a bit here and there in high school,” Yearsley says while soaking in the sun outside the shed. “I got serious when I met Henry. I saw him sitting on the beach carving away.
“He was a character: a warm, compassionate, caring man,” Yearsley says. “He was an icon in this town. People would seek out Henry just to stand in his presence. He had a grounding influence on people. I was searching for a different life.”
That was 20 years ago, and Yearsley has been carving eagle feathers ever since.
He says he has always been drawn to eagle feathers—or rather, perhaps, that they have been drawn to him.
During many backpacking, canoeing, and kayaking trips all over B.C. that he went on after high school, he says he would get a feeling and a voice in his head that would tell him he was about to find such a feather. Sure enough, every single time, one would show up on the trail or shoreline.
“I’ve had over 70 eagle feathers presented to me over my life going out in the wilderness,” Yearsley says. “I started carving eagle feathers because I have some connection with them. I want to honour that and all the old-growth forests I’ve sought out and old-growth cedars I’ve been lucky enough to be in the presence of.”
He shares a story about why he thinks he seems to have a knack for finding the plumage of the striking creatures. Having been given up for adoption at nine months of age and placed in seven different foster homes by the time he was four, he says he turned to nature for spiritual sustenance after a traumatic early life.
“I believe I sought out the Earth for strength,” he says. “I believe the universe was saying, ‘we’re going to give him something he can hang on to, to give him strength to get through his life.’ I would seek out the Earth, and the Earth was giving me a gift back.”
In addition to eagle feathers, Yearsley also carves boxes, some adorned with orca fins or semiprecious stones, jewllery, and other pieces. Anyone can go into the cedar-scented shed to see his work and that of other carvers, including Nolla.
Yearsley meets people from all over the world as a resident carver at the Wick and feels he’s carrying on Nolla’s legacy in a way. “I take honour in being the welcomer of the shed,” Yearsley says. “I learned that from watching Henry.”