This past weekend, on a crisp August morning, Susan and I boarded the Vashon Island ferry, bound for a field located in the middle of the island. Our only expectation: cuteness.
This field (part of the 500+ acre Misty Isle Farms, a longtime sponsor and supporter of this event) is home of the Vashon Sheepdog Classic.Today, the tradition of 300 years of sheepdog history which started on the misty moors of England and Scotland, would make its way to charming Vashon Island.
Susan and I, having arrived early (our motto for all of you – we can’t state this enough), decided to have brunch at The Hardware Store, a Vashon institution that serves up really great food set in an historic building which was once a hardware store, now without the nails. We sat upfront, watching people come and go from a small makeshift farmer market set up outfront. We enjoyed pancakes, eggs, mimosas and really great coffee. Our server was also exceptional. This is a must see/visit place and it’s located right downtown.
After brunch we set off for Misty Isle Farms. Once we parked, I could already hear the telltale sound of the shepherd’s whistle. These whistles have been modified over the years, but most still resemble really small handheld dustpans and are worn around the shepherd’s neck.
Susan and I made our way in to the field, found a perfect spot on the grass near the end of the course and set-up camp.The trials had started at dawn, literally, and (you guessed it) would go until dusk. So, the action was in full swing.
The first thing we noticed was how large the course was. Each dog (Border Collies) walks onto the field and then is presented to sheep (5 total) over 400 yards away.
The handler then sends the dog down field, which results in a full blown sprint.
Once the dog reaches the sheep, it gives the sheep what is called “the strong eye,” which is basically a deep gaze into the sheep’s eyes.
Now, this could be viewed as romantic if the sheep were not totally aware that by not abiding by the dogs wishes, the result is nipping at their legs. In full disclosure, I sometimes give Susan this same look when she has one french fry remaining on her plate.
The dog then “fetches” the sheep and drives them down field in hopefully a straight line towards the handler and towards the first gate which must be passed through in order to accrue points.
The course is made up of three such gates, all precariously placed I might add. It was absolutely amazing to watch the teamwork between the dog and the handler. Sometimes though, the command ‘Lie down!’ was not heeded.
Ultimately, the handler and dog bring the sheep as a tight group to within feet of the handler. I thought initially this was perhaps a moment for the handler and dog to make amends to the the sheep, but rather this is a critical and amazing portion of the trial called, The Shed.
The Shed is when the handler separates two sheep from the group of five. This was typically done to separate younger sheep or a mother from the group. It takes a lot of coordination between handler and dog. It’s the first time where the handler actually works in unison with the dog to create a natural fissure between the sheep, thus, separating them. This accomplishment always brought about a wave of applause from the grassy hill peppered with spectators.
The last part of the trial is handler and dog working together once again to pen the sheep.
This needs to be very precise and sometimes resulted in the sheep moving around the pen rather than heading inside it. Sheep, who are naturally worried to start with, fear being penned, an emotion I think anyone of us can relate to.
So, when achieved, this accomplishment also would bring about a wave pent of emotions and cheers from the crowd. At times, I felt like I was watching a field goal go through the uprights during the last few seconds of a critical football game.
All of the above must be done within a time limit of 10 minutes. If the handler can’t complete the course, they are merely given the number of points they earned during their attempt.
Susan and I, later joined by Greer and William, watched eagerly as each new dog and each new group of sheep took to the course.
Some resulted in a flawless trial, during other runs we merely had to appreciate the cuteness of the contestant. We dined on sandwiches, chips, fruit and San Pellegrino. Additionally, Susan had the wherewithal to realize that any event with the word “classic” in it would require some sort of alcoholic beverage, so, little bottles of cabernet were procured. Susan and I, in honor of such a classy event, drank them directly from the bottle. It was then that we were transported back to the golden age of sheep herding.
We all wandered about the Classic. Speaking with vendors, buying souvenirs ( I am a big fan of buying something unique attached to an experience you have shared with others) and ultimately kissing a delightful little Jack Russell Terrier at the “Kissing Booth”.
It only cost 5 cents and the proceeds went to a local shelter. Susan and I both indulged and gave a dollar each.
As the day grew late (and the panting lessened as dogs took refuge under a grove of trees), we decided to pack it up and say our goodbyes.
I would encourage any and all to attend this event next year. The people were wonderful, the handlers knowledgeable and passionate and the dogs, well, the dogs were absolute pros and, rather adorable. At the very least, you can look at your friends next year deadpanned when they ask “what are you doing this weekend” and respond, “going to a sheepdog contest.”