“She’s a Woofer” – an entertaining read of a host’s remembrance of visiting WWOOFers

Aug 31, 2022

WWOOF Hosts, David and Sally of “The Rock”

 

For your reading pleasure please find an excerpt “She’s a Woofer” below. 

We highly recommend the whole book: Our Life Off the Grid: An Urban Couple Goes Feral

 

She’s a Woofer

It was a few years after our arrival on the island and Sally and I were at a party at a neighbor’s home. I thought I knew everyone, but it seemed I was mistaken. My host and I were talking when a young woman walked by with appetizers.

“Who’s that?” I asked.

“Woofer,” he said.

Now I don’t feel the need to defend the planet from sexism or rudeness in all its manifest forms but “woofer” seemed a bit harsh, even to me. I gallantly rose to the occasion.

“Oh yeah? I’ll admit that she’s no Angelina Jolie but, really man, calling her a “woofer” is just plain rude!”

“Dave, Dave. Calm down. “Woof” is spelled W-W-O-O-F. It stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. It’s a volunteer program. Hosts feed and house young people, often from other countries, in exchange for farm, ranch or homestead work. Typically, hosts have rural homes on acreages, like us. Jen is wwoofing here. She’s from Australia. She’ll help out in the garden and maybe chop some wood and then, in a week or so, move on to another host.”

And here I was thinking that maybe just a new hairdo and a bit of makeup might help the situation.

But I was hooked on the concept. I contacted WWOOF, sent in my name with a brief write-up, paid my dues, and waited for the wwoofers to bark at my door. Sure enough, Sarah and Constance soon contacted us from England. The game was afoot.

These two young school teachers arrived all pasty white and very British. I didn’t think they’d make it up the trail, let alone work like the Sherpas I’d hoped for. But they were delightful company those first few hours and we had a great introductory meal. They did the dishes without prompting before they took to the guest quarters, so Sally was already fully on side.

 Log hauling, bucking and splitting were scheduled for the next day. Then carrying and stacking. I intended to start slowly and quit early as is my usual practice with just about everything except reading and drinking Scotch. They’d have none of it. These two young women were farm girls and knew how to work. It was hell. I couldn’t get them to stop so I kept bringing up logs. We put in a lot of wood that day. Finally we quit, had dinner and they did the dishes again.

I was starting to enjoy this wwoofing thing. It’s nice having young people do as I tell them, an experience foreign to me since my own kids were about six years old. These two were even polite enough to suffer through a few of my stories. No choice, really, as we don’t have television. Naturally, they went to bed early.

But the next day, of course, was different. They were off the job. No work. They went kayaking and, while they were out on the water, found and towed in a log that was drifting by. Brought it in by kayak. Not an easy thing to do. They added it to the pile awaiting the next day’s work. They had good attitude in spades.

And so it went for a week. When Sarah and Constance left for another wwoofing gig they left as friends, with their legacy our winter’s firewood. It was a good experience for all of us.

 

Since then we’ve hosted many wwoofers and enjoyed almost every single one of them. I am still in frequent touch with Christian from Eastern Europe who came with his friend Leanne from the Maritimes. Before arriving at our door he and Leanne had worked at a dog sled outfit up north where they looked after the dogs and worked their way up to driving clients on dog sleds.

Christian worked like Paul Bunyan and ate like his ox, Babe. Financially it was not quite the same great deal as it had been with the two school teachers, but we were only out a few pounds of potatoes and a steak or two. Christian and Leanne were both hard workers, bright and interesting. Good company too. Christian regaled us with tales of growing up in East Germany. When he was a small child his father had driven him for many hours to witness the fall of the Berlin Wall.

 

Each wwoofer is different. Some speak English poorly, some not much at all. Some are small and unskilled; others are Amazons and work like machines. Generally speaking, they are all willing workers, often from out of the province, and more often from out of the country, looking for a natural experience in a family setting. They need a place to sleep and put their belongings, some inclusive family time, usually around meals or chores, and some free time. And they need good food. In exchange for room and board they work half a day or one day out of two, although many wwoofers help out a little all the time.

We learned how to evaluate our wwoofer applicants in our email exchanges. Shakespeare wrote from Gambia. “I want to come help and…I have five lovely children.” Sheesh. I don’t think we can accommodate six people, even if five of them are lovely. Truth is, this is not a good place for little kids. If they tip over on our slope they’ll keep on rolling right into the sea. Not good. Sadly, we had to disappoint Shakespeare.

 

Our next wwoofer, Phoebe, came from Australia by way of a seven year work stint in Jolly Olde England. Her accent was just wild. A thirty year old worker with youth offenders, Phoebe is smart, capable, strong and pleasant. We did a little logging of dead and windfall trees and managed a good day’s work in less than four hours. Which is good, since four hours is about my limit.  I always vow to work wwoofers like dogs (seems fitting) but we never do.

“You have to do the dishes!” I say, sternly.

Sally adds, “If that’s okay with you?”

Our supine wwoofer looks up from the couch, “Okay, but since you are up, I’ll have a bit more wine.”

There has to be a happy medium.

Actually, I am only kidding. All the wwoofers have been good, save one French couple who were very pleasant in a social setting but felt obliged to stand back whenever work was being undertaken.

When Lilou and Jules showed up, the chores I had scheduled at the time were simple. I was going to put in a new window in the boathouse with which I required some assistance and as well we were going to clear an area of beach by carrying small boulders from one part of our shoreline to another. Each boulder was between the size of a cabbage and a bowling ball—heavy, but still manageable by one person.

They couldn’t seem to walk and carry a rock at the same time and demonstrated no inclination to master the skill, either. The window installation was rocket science to them—beyond their intellectual grasp. They looked at the tools I gave them as if they were ray-guns from Planet Zorg. They stood dumbstruck the whole time. They were very nice to be with but labour was not only beneath them, it also seemed too challenging. They just didn’t seem to get it, even as we were doing it.

I’m not kidding. I’d say only the wheelbarrow was a concept readily grasped. How the hell these people got from their home country all the way to our island is a question I often pondered after seeing them trying to work the garden hose or use a screwdriver.

“So, Lilou…? What did you do in France? Before coming here?”

“Ooo…ah teaze de Anglais, eh? Ah am a Anglais teazer fo den ’ears, eh?”

“Wow! Interesting. What is the name of this tool in French?”

“Ah ’ave neder zeen zat tsing bee-fore. Whad iz zat?”

“We call it a shovel.”

We share our wwoofers now and then with other hosts we know, especially if the wwoofers want to stay on in the area. This couple did. We shared those school teachers pretty quick, hoping they would find a better fit with someone else. They made a favorable impression at one of the local lodges because they liked working in the kitchen. As it turned out, they stayed around the islands for a month or so before returning home to France.

The other night at a dinner party, Judith asked, “Have you heard about Lilou and Jules? Seems they went back to France but once there, felt they needed to become more independent. They wanted to be more competent and skilled. They quit their jobs and immigrated to Canada last summer. They are working on a cattle ranch in the Chilcotin.”

What? They are the last people I ever thought would do something like that. Oh my gawd. How are they doing?”

“Well, they are riding horses, herding cattle, mending fences and building things. Really into alternative energy, too, I gather. I saw a picture of the cabin they built for themselves. It was pretty good!”

What the hell happened to them?

“Well, Lilou wrote to tell me that their time on our island taught them that they were lacking in real life skills and they were very impressed with all of us and how independent we were. After a time in France, they decided that they preferred to live our way and made application to come to Canada. They got a wwoofing gig at a ranch and are now employees. They are really into off the grid learning and are picking up skills wherever they can. They’ve both signed up for a course in heavy duty mechanics. They seem pretty pleased with themselves.”

I picked my jaw up from the floor. I stammered. I was stunned, to say the least.

“Those guys were the least capable people we have ever encountered and bear in mind that we, ourselves, are barely functional out here. I would never have guessed that happening in a million years. That’s astonishing.”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought. Pretty cool, huh?”

 

But back to Phoebe. We finally managed to work our wwoofer like a dog. Unfortunately our primary experience is with Portuguese water dogs so Phoebe went paddling. Sally, Jorge, John and Phoebe took the kayaks and paddled through the narrows. The tides and currents at this time of year are moderate so they could explore the nooks and crannies of the islets that form the constriction that is the pass. They could see what can’t always be easily seen. Mostly just more rocks and Christmas trees, of course, but at one point they came upon a small, dry rock with a couple of dozen seals lolling about. Seeing seals a few feet away from a kayak is a neat experience, especially for a young woman from Melbourne via London.

They also caught a glimpse of a sea lion and, naturally, there were eagles and other winged denizens of the area to view. The paddle was quite a few miles long and took a few hours. All good.

While they were away, I worked on a small deck extension to make hanging the clothes on the clothesline easier. Yes, that’s right–we hang clothes on a line. The clothesline extends through the trees so finding bark and twigs in my sock drawer is the norm. Paw prints on the sheets tend to mystify me, though. Just how does a dog get a muddy print on a sheet hanging six feet off the ground? More mystifying is the fact that the first time I noticed it there were a series of prints as if a dog had walked across the sheet.

“Sally, how did the paw print pattern come to decorate our sheets?”

“Never mind, a little dirt won’t do you any harm!”

“But, really, a little dirt kind of defeats the purpose of washing them in the first place, doesn’t it?”

“No. This is just a little clean dirt. We wash the sheets to get rid of the dirty dirt.”

Seems the dogs generate clean dirt and we, in our sleep, make dirty dirt. If only it were so. Maybe Phoebe should be doing the washing? But she’s heading off to trek in Nepal.

Because she is going on a trek, we invited Judith, Rob and Laurie for a send-off dinner. Rob and Laurie are world class mountaineers and they gave Phoebe tips on hiking gear, hostels and other things Katmandu.

Normally, I would listen attentively to that kind of discussion so that I would have the information for future use. But I didn’t listen so closely this time. I am unlikely to go hiking in Nepal anytime in the foreseeable future. At least I hope not. A sure sign of getting older is striking things off the lifetime bucket list without having done them.

 

We host wwoofers for a number of reasons, one of which is for the fun of meeting nice young people and sharing our piece of the world with them. But we do always need to get in a few cords of wood for each winter and that chore is one that we have found wwoofers enjoy and is easy to get their help with.

Rod and Julie arrived in the spring specifically to help us with firewood. They were wwoofers from England in their late twenties. Traveling around the world on a budget, their goal was to do so without taking a plane. Nice couple. We took them up to the Arts and Culture Day at the school and they mingled with the fifty or so local people in attendance. We returned home in the rain and, since already wet, we decided to start on the chore of building the woodpile.

Hurting my back riding my son’s motorcycle through a backstop the previous summer hadn’t helped my woodcutting abilities. I could still feel the injury. I didn’t yet have a mechanical log splitter so I was going to leave the splitting to the young people.

Well, first I had to teach them how to do it. And at least I look like I know what I am talking about. I wear one of my plaid lumberjack shirts and my heavy boots. I’m not light and, put as nicely as I can, I am somewhat compact. Some might say dense. Like a boulder packed in bubble wrap. But not just a little of that is muscle. Plus I have been doing this chopping thing for a while. I have the rhythm. So, I pick up the splitting maul and, with barely an effort, I split a piece neatly and efficiently with one blow. Impressive, if I do say so myself.

Then I stop and hand the implement of destruction to the smaller of the two—in this case, Julie.

What they don’t know is that the piece I chose to demonstrate on was pre-selected for being knot free and dry. A real logger could have split it with a large spoon. Still, it looks impressive and it is to them. So, then I give them a knotty, green piece of spirit-breaking wood and say, “Here, Julie. You try!”

The results are predictable but Julie doesn’t care. She wasn’t looking forward to swinging an eight pound maul around anyway. But the contrast of my proficiency with Julie’s lack of it is what we are going for. Rod can see that this is his chance to impress me and, more importantly, Julie. His hormones are rising to the challenge. Like sap!

I discretly remove the gnarly piece and give him a nice dry, easily split round. He whacks. It usually still takes a few good swings but he gets through and we all “oooh” and “aaah” at his burly man-ness. Julie looks on approvingly. And the guy is hooked.

Young men, eh? I go in and get a few ibuprofens for my sore back and go out to encourage the macho display a few more times before getting the chainsaw to cut more rounds for the now sweating, macho-man splitting-machine.

But all is not quite right. Not yet.

I whisper to Julie “I gave him an easy round to split. I gave you a hard one. Doing it this way means he is proud of his work, you see. It encourages him. I hope you don’t mind? If you want to give it a few whacks some time, I’ll get a regular piece for you.”

“No. I don’t mind. I do the same with him, myself. Give him something easy and then oooh and aaah. He falls for it every time. But I had no idea guys were on to this.”

“Just getting in touch with my feminine side. Have to. My masculine side is sore and hurting. Gotta get smart like you women.”

I split a few more rounds for them to set some sort of standard and then, before my back packs it in, I stride off with a bit of a macho challenge.

“It’s not muscle work, it’s just rhythm. You should get good enough so that you can just whack and whack all day.

Rod split all afternoon. And before I had a chance to get a round for Julie she had decided that she could split wood too and when I eventually went back out, she was hard at it. She returned to stacking for a while but later she took the job of splitting from her partner. She was going to master the maul and chop like a logger.

And she did! It always takes a while to see who has it and who doesn’t. Splitting really is a rhythm thing. Strength is a factor (even though I lied and said it wasn’t) but the real role of strength is in keeping the maul and the chopping head straight and true at the moment of impact. A strong person hitting slightly off target wastes their energy and gets nowhere. A weaker person who hits dead on will split wood. Julie got it. She then found a good rhythm. And the wood started to fly.

It was only for half a day because these two, being English and not living near a beach, were amazed at ours. (But really, how far away from a beach can you get when you live in England?) They couldn’t get over the plentiful and free seafood. They gathered and shucked oysters for dinner and dug a bunch of clams for Sal’s famous chowder. I took the opportunity to have a brief nap. Old guys, eh?

At five o’clock it was time for a glass of wine. So, we had one. Rod and Julie joined us when they returned from kayaking. For us, it was a normal day—a productive one, a physical one and a nice one. For them? It was marvelous.

And that is the main reason for hosting wwoofers.

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