Touted as the most-attended herding event on the West Coast, the Vashon Sheepdog Classic shows off Vashon Island at its most scenic, and includes a fiber-arts venue as well.
VASHON ISLAND — There are plenty of events to escape to this summer around Puget Sound, but none transport you to another time and place quite like the Vashon Sheepdog Classic, which happens next weekend, June 8-11, 2017.
Though it has grown substantially in its seven years, now touted as the most-attended herding event on the West Coast, the rural charm that first captivated me remains. The setting, Misty Isle Farms, is Vashon Island at its most beautiful and the teams competing include some of the best in the country. Add in local food and merchandise vendors plus a hands-on Fiber Arts Village and you have the makings of a perfect June day. All proceeds go to area nonprofits, so you’re not just sitting in a field, you’re doing good work.
Understanding the action
My initial interest stemmed from my obsession with dogs. Most of the dogs competing are border collies, a breed much more intelligent than my own mutts, possibly smarter than me. I had no idea what those dogs were doing the first time I watched, but I could tell they were way out of our league. Laura Vishoot, a longtime competitor who runs a sheep farm and training facility in Cottage Grove, Oregon, broke it down for me.
Each dog and handler team starts with a maximum number of points and has to complete their run in a set time. Judges can take away points on each of six phases, based on how smoothly the dog performs. The team with the most points wins that day’s trial and handlers can use their trial points to advance to regional and national competition as the season progresses.
A shepherd begins with their dog at a post in a marked circle, called the shedding ring, at one end of the field as four or five sheep are released 425 yards north. They send their dog by whistle or voice command in a wide arc to a point behind the sheep, then the dog brings this mini-flock back through a set of gates to the handler. The work gets more complicated as the handler sends the dog out again to steer the sheep back and forth through several more gates, before returning to the ring, peeling off one or two sheep from their buddies, then reuniting them.
With time ticking down and spectators on the edge of their hay bales, the handler can now leave the ring and join the dog as they guide the sheep into a pen. Not every team beats the clock and some miss gates along the way.
“That course on Vashon is especially challenging because of the terrain,” Vishoot explained. “It’s so hilly. There are so many times on that course when you (the handler) don’t see the dog or the sheep and you can’t do anything about it.”
You don’t have to be a professional sheep rancher to compete. Lisa Berglund, whose full-time job as a photographer keeps her plenty busy, will be competing with her border collie Sam in the pro-novice category on Thursday. She caught the shepherding bug four years ago while attending the trials with a friend.
“I just remember sitting on the grassy knoll watching,” Berglund recalled. “There was this one particular person. I loved the way it felt like he had this amazing relationship with his dog. like they were doing a dance. At that moment, I decided ‘I’m going to do this. Someday I’m going to enter my dog in this trial.’ To see a dog do what it’s bred to do — It’s just stunning.”
Where did you get that sweater?
Watching the competition is fascinating, but so is the popular Fiber Arts Village. What began organically with fiber artist Myra Willingham and a few friends practicing their craft while watching the trials has become a huge part of the event.
Willingham, who learned knitting at the age of 6 from her Swedish grandmother, then got hooked on spinning and weaving after seeing it at a community fair during college, wants to bring the same learning experiences to others.
“Maggie (McClure, executive director of the trials) thought it was important that people recognize how the wool gets from the sheep to the fabric,” Willingham explained. “So we demonstrate that whole process and we also try to make as many (of the processes) as hands-on as possible.”
No, your child will not be wielding sharp shears or operating a fragile, antique spinning wheel, but they can weave on table looms, try their hands at rug-hooking or spin yarn using a drop spindle. Be careful, fiber art is addictive.
“It’s like a slippery slope,” Willingham laughed. “You start knitting and the next thing you know you’re spinning, then the next thing you know you’re weaving …”
IF YOU GO
The Vashon Sheepdog Classic is Thursday, June 8, through Sunday, June 11, 2017. The field is at the corner of Old Mill Road and Southwest 220th Street, Vashon Island. Admission: $10, or free for kids 10 and younger. Shuttle buses ($5 round-trip from Vashon Island ferry docks) will operate Saturday and Sunday.
Tips and highlights
- Kids younger than 10 get in free and are welcome, but make sure they ask before petting any dog.
- Buy tickets ahead of time; there will be a limit on attendance each day.
- Dr. Temple Grandin, prominent author and speaker on both autism and animal behavior, and a professor of animal science at Colorado State University, will give an informal talk on Sunday afternoon, June 11.
- Sheepshearing demonstrations are scheduled Friday and Saturday, June 9-10.
- June 10 is World Wide Knit in Public Day. Yes, that is a thing, so pack a project.
- Chairs are available but some of the best viewing spots are the grass, so bring a blanket.
- Don’t forget your appetite. Local vendors such as Patty’s Tamales and Vashon Island Baking Company will be open Friday through Sunday.
- Bring a long lens if you plan on shooting pictures. The course is vast and a lot of the action is far away.