VASHON — Now in its ninth year, the Vashon Sheepdog Classic is set to begin next week, showcasing the art of sheepherding in the rolling field of Misty Isle Farm.
When islander Maggi McClure brought the trials to Vashon in 2010, about 3,500 people attended. Last year, more than 10,000 people flocked to the event, so many that organizers had volunteers stationed at the Fauntleroy ferry dock to turn people away. This year, to keep numbers manageable, organizers are requiring advance ticket purchases for the busiest days. McClure said she and other organizers are taking this step to help maintain the intimate feel of the event and to ensure those who attend have a good time.
“It is pretty spectacular, and we want to help the heart of the event stay true,” she said. “We do not base the success of this event on the number of bodies we can fit in, but on the spirit of the event and community involvement,” she said.
The Sheepdog Classic will include bagpipers, refreshments and the popular Fiber Arts Village, which will feature vendors from all over the Northwest and a kids’ tent with hands-on activities. The centerpiece of the event — sheepherding — will take place from dawn to dusk Thursday through Sunday, June 7 to 10. While advance tickets are required Friday through Sunday, McClure said if islanders without tickets want to come by and see if there is space, they will be accommodated if there is room. She recommended Thursday as the quietest day to attend, when vendors will be setting up, the youngest dogs will be competing, and admission is by donation.
McClure is quick to point out that while there are five primary organizers for the dog trials, about 300 volunteers are part of the event. The Fiber Arts Village alone has more than 80 volunteers, knitting, spinning, felting and weaving — and sharing their craft. The event is a fundraiser for island nonprofits focused on youth, and many of the organizations have delegations that volunteer. Since 2010, the event has raised more than $150,000. Continuing in that vein, Thursday’s donations this year will benefit the Vashon-Maury Community Food Bank.
While there is plenty to do for both kids and adults at the trials, McClure credits the competition’s popularity in part to the human-dog partnership on display throughout the weekend. The trials show the communication between the dogs and their handlers as well as the innate ability of herding dogs, all doing work that they are truly born to do. McClure also points to the location itself as a draw.
“Does it get any more beautiful than the Misty Isle field?” she said. “It’s magical.”
Sheepdog trials originated in the late 1800s as a way for shepherds to show off the talents of their canine partners, and the sport has surged in popularity in the 21st century. Competing sheepdogs are frequently border collies because of their speed and intelligence. During the competition, the mission of these highly trained dogs is to gather and move the sheep through tasks that could be encountered on a farm. Guiding the sheep with kindness and patience is essential — a bite is cause for immediate disqualification. The handler guides the dog with whistles or voice commands, and the entire run must be completed within a certain number of minutes.
It may have seemed an unlikely event to draw thousands of people to the island when McClure first brought it here, but it is part of the fabric of island life now and has become a 30-hour a week job for McClure six months out of the year.
It has also become a highly regarded national competition and the most-attended herding event on the West Coast. This year, there will be 150 handler-dog teams, with the farthest competitor coming from Georgia. Two islanders will be among the competitors, McClure and Christie True.
Thursday, the soft opening of the event, is devoted to novice competition with young dogs or those new to handling. From Friday to Sunday, the Vashon Sheepdog Classic will be a vibrant and colorful scene with activities for all ages thanks to the many fiber artists: Gates and markers will be wrapped in colorful yarn, and bright bunting flags made from recycled woolens will adorn the festival grounds. Discussions and panels with Julie Forbes of The Dog Talk Show will be offered on Saturday and Sunday, and bagpipers will play every afternoon as a fresh flock of sheep are released and moved up the hill.
The sheep this year — 300 of them — are from the Willamette Valley, and McClure mentioned their arrival on a truck as one of her favorite elements of the competition.
“They jump out with joy and get in the grass and spread out over the field. And then it is game on,” she said.
McClure’s other favorite element of the weekend, she said, is seeing the two communities she has long been part of — dog handlers and islanders — coming together for something so positive: dog trials that raise money for good causes.
“It is a big win-win for everybody,” she said.
The Classic runs from 7 a.m. to approximately 6 p.m. each day. General admission is $10 per day; a four-day pass is $25, and kids 10 and under are free. Tickets are available at Pandora’s Box, the Country Store and at brownpapertickets.com.
Shuttle service from Vashon’s north- and south-end ferry docks to the trials runs Saturday and Sunday beginning at 9 a.m. Round trip cost is $5 cash. Also, a free shuttle service to and from the field will be available Saturday and Sunday with stops at the Country Store, the Ober Park park and ride and Nashi Orchards, with free parking at those three locations.
The entrance to the field is on Old Mill Road between SW 220th Street and SW 232nd Street. There is on–street parking for spectators, and disability parking is available near the gate.
Cash is recommended. Vendors may accept cards, but a few are usually cash-only. There are no ATMs near the field. Folding-chair seating is available under the spectator tents, but bringing your own chairs and blankets is highly recommended. Sunscreen, water bottles and binoculars are also a good idea.
For more information, see vashonsheepdogclassic.com.
This story was first published in the Vashon Island Beachcomber. Maria Glanz also contributed to this story.