QUADRA ISLAND, B.C. - A herd of sheep feasting on Jerusalem artichoke leaves can't seem to get enough food or admiration from two wide-eyed city boys oblivious to the manure beneath their feet.
Nearby, a dozen hens cluck away with their chicks in tow as five quacking ducks waddle off in the distance, and Myra, the tail-wagging Labrador retriever, woofs to signal it's time to play.
The cacophony is pure joy for my nine-year-old son Matthew and his 10-year-old friend Lev, who are learning a few lessons in the care and feeding and sharing of animals at the Bold Point Farmstay on Quadra Island, off the eastern coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia.
It's the second day of our three-day trip, and the boys who initially feared their fingers would be bitten off by the ducks they were trying to feed, have now become a couple of farm hands shouting "Awesome!" at every new discovery.
Gales of laughter erupt as they take turns riding Toby the sheep when I join in for a little cruise of my own. More laughter.
Watching the action is Rod Burns, who has guided the kids in their adventures since our arrival on this remote 10-acre property past logging and gravel roads.
"I bet he's a teacher," says Lev's mom, Tricia, as Burns leads us to our rented cottage across from a vegetable garden surrounded by apple, plum and sour cherry trees — and an enticing hammock.
Indeed, Burns taught Grades 8 to 10 before buying the farm with his wife Geraldine Kenny in 1995, when he made nature his classroom for the benefit of guests' children.
Visitors from France, India, Japan and elsewhere around the world have come here to unwind and increasingly, unplug in a place Burns calls "old-world wireless."
Burns and Kenny also host guests through two programs called HelpExchange and Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), which gives volunteers the opportunity to work and learn in return for food and accommodation.
"In many cases they will come to B.C. to try to improve their conversational English," Burns says.
Along with the vegetable garden, the forest on the property invites visitors to just wander free.
"The city crud comes off and your senses come alive and you start listening to the raindrops, to the animals," Burns says.
Besides collecting eggs for breakfast, heralded by the cock-a-doodle-doo of Mika the blind rooster, the boys get an education in maintenance by fixing a gate, broken thanks to the antics of a bossy ewe named Naughty Dotty.
Burns hands the kids a screwdriver, a hand saw, a piece of wood and some hardware.
"Work together" is the only instruction Burns gives them before letting them figure out the project he later deems a success.
That evening, we become stargazers during the annual Perseid meteor shower, watching shooting stars streak across the sky while lazing on lawn chairs without a care in the world.
The next morning, Kenny treats us to a tour of the garden that includes three types of beans, such as the purple ones that turn green when they're cooked, and scarlet runners, which are adorned with striking orange blossoms.
Kenny also teaches the boys, through their initial snickers, that sheep manure makes excellent compost, especially for the plentiful squash, including the giant zucchini, which are apparently quite the rage around here.
"On Quadra Island people say, 'Don't leave your car unlocked or someone will leave a zucchini in it,'" Kenny says, inviting us to pick lettuce and herbs for our dinner.
All of us have learned about water conservation because a tiny spring provides for the house, where Burns and Kenny live, and the cottage, where a sign in the bathroom reads: "If it's yellow let it mellow, if it's brown flush it down."
We've also trekked off the farm to a local beach and Main Lake, where we meet plenty of kayakers who frequent Quadra Island, the largest of the Discovery Islands.
And we've visited the Nuyumbalees Cultural Centre at the nearby village of Cape Mudge to see potlatch ceremonial regalia, along with masks, rattles and whistles from the late 1800s to the early 1920s. The items belong to 15 First Nations communities around northern Vancouver Island.
Back at the farm, the boys who've groaned a few times about going back to school, have had an education they'll long remember.
"To be continued," Burns and Kenny say before we head for the car, lugging two massive zucchini and already missing Naughty Dotty and the gang.
If you go:
From Vancouver, head to West Vancouver and take the 90-minute ferry ride from Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo. From there, drive about two hours to Campbell River. It's a 10-minute ferry ride from there to Quadra Island.
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