Finding island sheep and seeing the past

Downeast is known for its unspoiled and rugged coastline, but, in my mind, the islands that dot its waters bring an added luster to this place. They are like magical jewels hidden on a piece of bundled fabric. When unraveled, they spill out one by one, and finding them is like finding buried treasure.

Anyone who spends time on the water — be it kayaking, sailing or on a lobster boat tending traps — knows the islands in this area are numerous and abound with history. Islands are also mysterious. Their placid pull of the sailor’s eye is magical, as they seduce like sirens from distant Greek days.

Not so long ago, boats would carry sheep out to distant islands for extended periods of time, where they would grow, breed and be protected from natural predators, such as fox and coyotes, while they grazed on grass and shoreline seaweed. The islands were a sanctuary of sorts for the wool the sheep provided to the owner and local economy, and it was considered the best way to raise sheep. Island wool is prized because it is fog washed and is exceptionally clean when compared to land-farmed sheep. At one time this method of raising sheep was common practice, but today it is yet another vanishing element of a Maine tradition. Downeast, there are still a few resilient families maintaining not only a tradition, but an integrated family and community way of life as thick as the very wool that is harvested.

A small group of islands situated three miles off the coast of Addison is still used today by a much written about family and their sheep island enterprise.  The Wakeman family continues the tradition of raising sheep on Big Nash and Little Nash islands, which was passed down to them by others. The islands are synonymous with shepherding, going back many generations, with the best-known island shepherdess being Jenny Cirone. Cirone was raised on Little Nash Island, where her father was the lighthouse keeper, and she started raising sheep at the age of 10 and continued to do so until her passing in 2004 at the age of  92. It was Cirone who started the “shearing of the sheep” tradition on these islands. Friends, neighbors and anyone interested in participating were invited to the island to help count and shear sheep and, also, assist with the return of some of the sheep to the mainland by way of lobster boat. The Wakeman family now manages the island sheep and continues what Cirone started by inviting others to participate in this annual event.

Photo, Larry Balchen

Courtesy, Peter Ralston

Transporting sheep using boats conjures images of a deck covered in whiteness with bobbing black eyes peering through fluff. If one were to look at Peter Ralston’s photograph titled ‘Pentecost’ that is exactly what one would see. The 1980 photograph, which is considered an iconic image, came about after Ralston was helping to move sheep from Tenants Harbor onto Allen Island for Andrew and Betsy Wyeth, who recently purchased the island to make it their summer home.

There are many islands in this area that were once used for raising sheep. Islands named Foster, Hickey, Sheep – now Halifax – Big Libby, Scabby and The Brothers all harbor fascinating stories of shepherding that are being kept alive by family, fishermen and the local communities all looking to the bumps on the water and remembering the past.

For those of us who are not shepherds, but rather dubious observers of a culture that harkens thoughts of ‘days back when,’ I can say that there is nothing like rounding the tip of an island in a boat and first, hearing the sound of sheep, and then seeing them: small groups of white dots moving amidst the green landscape like white musical notes singing a song in a green field floating in blue water. It is a moment like this when one realizes that distant days are speaking to you, whispering secrets once held in place by threads of wool, grass, and stone — a patchwork of days spent making trips by boat to the outer edges of the island, checking animals, counting them and seeing to the young.

One of my favorite paintings is of a ram standing high on an island bluff. His stare is fixed on the distant horizon. He is standing watch, no doubt, for the other sheep scattered like castaways, living out their days on an island, his island. Jaime Wyeth’s The Islander, its perspective painted from an island point of view, captures the foreboding isolation and stark beauty all at the same time.

Islands, such as Monhegan attracted artists long ago, including Jamie Wyeth, and this unbridled pull continues to do so today. I surmise it has something to do with the remoteness and the need for artists to be by themselves where they can look within and draw something out. So, too, does the shepherd who takes to the water with a boatload of sheep, landing on a distant island where the flock can grow, be protected and mature, taking days of bright morning sunshine and fog laden afternoons in hopes it will bring out the best, hidden deep within.

Today, as I ply these waters and venture close to islands, I always keep my ears piqued in hopes of hearing sheep. Their reverberating call, coming from a mist shrouded shore or wind swept bluff overlooking the sea, provides a beacon to my heart and tells me a story with each and every pull of the oar.

RJ Heller

About RJ Heller

Having arrived here from Pennsylvania over three years ago, there has been plenty to learn and even more to observe. This place is different, but I mean that in a good way. Born and raised in Pennsylvania, I am a college graduate with a teaching degree, a business founder and seller, and a father of two children with my wife Stephanie; life has been full and somewhat adventurous, but finding Maine remains a high watermark in my life.