A Christmas Adventure
During the cold weeks leading up to Christmas, the lion's share of sheep work starts to dwindle. The ardor of management-intensive grazing phases into daily flock checks and hay fluffing as the ewes come home. It's still hard and cold work to be sure, but affords more time for cups of tea and fiddle tunes by the fire.
There is one notable exception - and that is breeding season. Now, there isn't much for us to do other than turn a ram loose. However that becomes a little complicated - in a freezing sort of way - on the islands.
One particular winter I'll never forget. There was great excitement buzzing around the farm. We were hosting a special veterinarian to come in and 'AI' the sheep (that is, of course, artificial insemination rather than artificial intelligence). We had readied the chosen sheep with various methods from which I will refrain explanation (this story may have already gotten too odd for some of you!) and transformed our shed into a regular surgical lab.
The breeds we use are native to the British Isles, and so without new genetics they can become inbred. But there are tight laws about importing animals to prevent the spread of disease, so this importation, though costly and complicated, was and is a big deal for both our flock and the breed in the entire US.
The Doctor showed up one morning, one of the only doctors who could perform the fascinating and detailed surgery. This procedure can usually be done without surgery, but not on sheep. He came with a truckload of necessary tools. He would stay with us in the farmhouse while here, since he was from somewhere in the midwest. Perhaps I am a little foggy on the particulars, most 11-year-olds are! The snowflakes were falling thickly but the air was still. After he had unpacked, my Father asked him if he'd like to accompany us out to the islands for the ceremonious ram-drop. He nodded and off we went.
The trip to the island started like any other. We loaded the big beast of a ram onto the boat. Thankfully he was the quiet, gentle type - though I never trust a ram! The island was a short sail across the bay, to Chance's Island between Bucks Harbor and Cutler. It's a neighbor to Avery Rock, of The Lighthouse Keeper's Wife fame. The water was still and grey, and silent flakes fell all around us as the outboard on the houseless Eastporter cut through the water. Being in no hurry, we took our time, chatting about the exciting procedure to come. I was bundled from head to toe in wool, of course. Dad plotted a course with his compass, a mesmerizing black ball mounted to the steering column that bobbed smoothly with the bump of the boat.
It was all quite beautiful: serene and calming. The outboard humming almost put me to sleep as I sat comfortably in the stern, talking cautiously with the ram (did I mention I don't trust rams?)
Suddenly all went silent - yes, all. The outboard that has been happily buzzing stopped.
"Oh!" Dad chuckled. "Must have hit some seaweed. That's no trouble, I'll get it out".
He hoisted the motor as we bobbed, afloat in the great Atlantic with the snowflakes becoming ever thicker. No seaweed hung from the motor. No air in the gas line, no cracks or leaks. I've always been the anxious type, and as we ran out of simple fixes I started to get nervous. It wasn't what you call swimming weather, and either way there were no islands in sight. This was in the land before cell phones as well.
As he was elbow-deep in the motor, suddenly my Father uttered an 'ah - ha!' and the motor again came to life. We all sighed and laughed. But he soon discovered without holding some part to some piece in the motor, the engine would again sputter and die.
"You're going to have to sail, Lacie." I gulped. I'd like to tell you I bravely stepped to the wheel like a salty sea-dog and steered us there with a pipe clenched between my teeth and a yellow rubber hat, but that would be a more apt description of my sister Candace.
The Doctor remained very stoic through the whole thing. He was, after all, a doctor. I am sure he had seen many tense situations before, maybe even as tense as being sailed into the heart of the merciless sea by an eleven-year-old girl in a snowstorm.
As I sailed, the winds picked up and the flurry thickened. Soon all visibility was gone, as we were walled in by sheer white.
East I thought to myself, Just keep heading east and you'll see it!
Suddenly, like a sea monster emerging from the deep, rocks rose up in front of us. It was a terrifying sight to see the world of white interrupted by imposing cliffs, black as night and shaggy with kelp. I yanked the wheel as hard as I could, sending everybody including the poor ram and doctor careening off to port.
"Avery's Rock!?" My Dad exclaimed.
Avery's Rock it was indeed. My dad encouraged me to try again. "There's no better way to learn than hands-on experience." He said. I replied that perhaps I would like some hands-on experience with holding a motor together, and so he let me.
I held whatever those two pieces were together, thankful for my wool as the freezing spray hit me in the face and my knees grew weary of the hard bottom of the boat.
After what seemed like eons, the smooth pebbles near the ledgy bar of the lee side of Chance Island appeared on the horizon. The wind had worked the waves up considerably, and the snow kept getting thicker. As we neared the shore, I released the motor and we drifted closer. Again the silence, intensified by the thick snow, enclosed us.
We hurried around, untying the ram, who had been the calmest of all creatures on board. I will forever decry the modern myth that 'sheep are dumb'. They are not dumb, but they can be obstinate. This old boy knew exactly what a mid-winter trip to an island meant, and he was not perturbed in the least.
At this point, maybe you are a little aghast at the thought of leaving a sheep on an island. If so, you should see the blog below. I could elaborate at how islands are the perfect home for sheep to live healthy and natural lives, but you can read so here.
Anyway, all seemed to finally be looking up as the ram climbed to the top of the bow and hopped out. He turned around to momentarily see us off, then galloped off into the thick evergreens, bleating happily. Sometimes an inexperienced young ram will try to jump back in the boat in confusion, but this wise fellow was already snuffling the sheepy, salty, air joyously. We could hear muffled replies as the ewes hurried down to welcome him into the flock, muttering and rubbing noses. We stood for a moment and let the boat drift from shore, hearts warmed by the touching scene.
Suddenly the outboard roared to life, at top speed, hurtling us toward the jagged ledges. I was thrown to the stern. The Doctor sprang into action, and with one flying leap, he twisted the steering wheel hard right, which sent us into dizzying circles. He turned the key, and still the outboard churned for all it was worth (which wasn't much, but the way, and you'll be happy to know it has long since been replaced). My father tinkered and twisted and pulled like mad at the motor. It was like a carnival ride, though more wet, cold, and horrifying. At last the engine stopped.
After we worked out which way was up and down we heaved a sigh of relief and set off again. My dad made me sail us back in. This time, I managed to set a straight course for home. I was of course resistant, but he knew I needed the confidence boost. The winds died down, though the snow was still thick and visibility poor, by the time we made it home we were ready for the steaming lamb shank stew my mother had in china bowls waiting for us at the table. As we sat down and thawed, my dad asked the Doctor how he liked the boat ride.
He nodded solemnly. Half the fun of death-defying experiences for us is rehashing them over and over, so his apathetic silence was puzzling. But he retired that night, cordial, friendly, and quiet. We had a successful surgery session, then he packed up the following morning and headed home.
It was months later, when the frigid gray waters filled with slush and furor had melted into crystal blue, and baby lambs peppered the oceanside cliffs in the balmy breeze, when the Doctor's wife called us. She wanted my Dad to take them out to the island for an excursion. And - she added - she wasn't sure how we did it but she thanked us profusely for helping the Doctor conquer his fear of water. She said he had never so much as been in a pond before, even avoided large puddles, so great was his distress. But after his visit to us, he never feared the water again.