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Thursday, June 21, 2012

Kayaking The Thimble Islands: The Diamond Necklace of the Connecticut Coast


This week my friend Alan and I kayaked from Island Bay to the Thimble Islands in Stony Creek, Branford, Connecticut.  It was my turn to drive so I loaded my 14-foot Merlin sea kayak onto the roof rack and picked up Alan and his 18-foot sea kayak and headed down Route 17 from Middletown through Durham.  At the Route 77 interchange we turned left for the long drive through rural Durham past rolling meadows and old-time cow farms and newer single-family housing developments which have been displacing the old family farms over the past few generations.  The road took us to North Branford past the long narrow lake on the left and finally to Route 95 South which appears out of nowhere as a hulking concrete behemoth.   A few exits later we left the concrete jungle of the expressway and turned onto the access road to Stony Creek, Leetes Island Road.  We followed the twisting road past 18th century houses and marshlands.  At Shell Beach Road we turned right and reached our put-in at Shell Cove on Island Bay.

The cove is accurately named for all the remains of clam shells which are sprinkled like rock salt on the sandy shore of Long Island Sound.  A sign on a metal post advised clammers that it was safe to dig for clams at that spot on that one day.  Later in the afternoon, at the end of our trip, a man who has clammed in the area for over 30 years explained that the state environmental official who lives on the beach nearby checks the water quality each day.  If the bacterial level is too high he unlocks the lock which holds the "Safe for Clamming" sign in place, flips it over, and alerts the clammers to dig for their hors d'oeuvres at one of the other areas monitored by the state.

The little beach at the cove is covered with a mix of small rocks and clam shells.  They lie on top of and are embedded in the rich dark sandy mud at the water's edge.  We loaded our hatches with our dry bags.  In mine was the car key at the bottom, a bathing suit and towel, and a light paddling top.  I also carried an extra bottle of water in case I ran through what I carried in the water-filled Gatorade bottle which was held in place in the black elastic rope rigging in front me on the deck of the boat.  It was high tide when we pushed off from shore and the light wind was blowing from the southeast.  Since our Thimble Island destination was several miles to the southwest, the wind would be at our backs and I figured I didn't need the paddling top for the trip out to the islands.  A lightweight quick-dry tee shirt, sunglasses, a hat, and sunscreen on the exposed skin was all that was needed on this mostly-sunny day.

On the way southwest out of Shell Cove into Island Bay we passed a grandfather and grandson on the west shore operating a small red radio-controlled sailboat.  They waved to us and I waved back to acknowledge them.  We took care to stay out of the way of the little toy sailboat.

Clark Point marks the western end of Island Bay.  As we continued southwest past Clark Point, we passed Harrison Point.  The area between Clark Point and Harrison Point is a lovely little bay inlet called Little Harbor.  Continuing southwest we approached what is called Narrows Island.  Narrows Island is actually a peninsula attached by a small spit of land to the larger Leetes Island.  Like Narrows Island, Leetes Island is really a peninsula, at the southern tip of Hoadley Neck, which is part of the mainland.  Both Leetes and Narrow Islands are populated with large summer homes.

As we continued paddling southwest, the southeast wind was now blowing against the tide, which was beginning to ebb and move the Sound's waters to the east.  As we paddled past shallower waters, the action of the wind against the tidal current created some large standing waves which required us to pay careful attention to our balance to avoid our kayaks tipping over.  Alan and I are seasoned Eskimo rollers, especially in our smaller surf kayaks, but the water was about 64 degrees and we were not particularly interested in getting wet and having our upper bodies chilled by the wind as we continued paddling.  Being early in the season, neither of us has spent time practicing our Eskimo rolls, so we carefully braced our boats with our paddles as we paddled through the shallow, wave-filled areas.

The Thimble Islands are a collection of several hundred islands, large rocks, and sandbars.  The smaller ones are only seen at low tide.  Less than two dozen have houses on them.  The islands are pink granite outcroppings left over from the Ice Age.  The Thimbles look a lot like the pink granite islands off the cost of Maine.  The nice thing for lower New Englanders like us is the close proximity of The Thimbles to anywhere in Connecticut.  It would take hours to reach the coast of Maine, but the Thimbles are just 45 minutes away from Middletown.

As we approached the Thimble chain, we took refuge in the lee of Helen Island, to get some relief from the southeast wind which was gaining velocity as the day progressed.  After a short rest to get a drink of water, we paddled southwest between Money Island and the much smaller East Stopping Bush Island.  Money Island is the most populated of all the Thimbles, with several dozen houses largely concealed among pine trees and oak trees.  We were paddling during the week and it was still early in the season, so most of the homes seemed to be empty of their owners.

Our ultimate goal was the last island in the Thimble chain, Outer Island, about 4 miles from where we started.  On our way to Outer Island, we passed between Horse Island and a tiny island which has a one-room house on stilts on it.  The little island with the stilted house is so low that storm-tossed seas occasionally cover the rocky prominence completely.  Without the stilts, the tiny house would be completely flooded with sea water during those bad weather conditions.  Horse Island is shaped like a horseshoe.  On the south side of the island there is a little cove where I've gone ashore up to the mean high water mark to eat lunch or take a swim.  Yale University's Peabody Museum of Natural History owns Horse Island and maintains an old victorian home well-hidden by tall trees.  The university uses the island for ecological research.  Alan and I decided to paddle on to Outer Island.

Outer Island and Horse Island are a few hundred feet apart.  In the channel between them, the ebbing tidal current was gaining strength by the time we reached this point.  The wind swell and tidal rip currents were pushing our kayaks towards the northeast so we had to paddle a bit harder to gain entrance into the calm water of the harbor between the rock jetties of Outer Island.  We landed our kayaks, got out, and were greeted by two young women who live as caretakers on the island.  The women offered to give us a tour, which was a kind offer, but Alan and I were quite familiar with the island from prior trips, so we declined.

Outer Island is smaller than its neighbor, Horse Island.  Outer was once owned by Yale Professor Hird and his wife.  They lived in the wood framed house nestled back in the thick grove of trees on the south side of the island.  After the death of her husband, Mrs. Hird gave the island in the 1990's to the National Fish and Wildlife Service for preservation, upkeep, and public access.  Pictures of Mr. and Mrs. Hird, and the story of their ownership of the island are preserved in a permanent color plaque next to the little harbor and sandy beach where we landed.  Alan told me he had been part of the Connyak (Connecticut Sea Kayak Club) group which participated in the ceremony surrounding Mrs. Hird's giving the island to the federal government.  Connyak now helps to maintain the island and one of its members, Bill Anthony, built a wooden outdoor roof structure next to the little barn between the beach and the house.  The handsome addition of the roof structure has a picnic table underneath and is the scene of talks and presentations about the history and ecology of the Thimble Islands and Long Island Sound.

After leaving Outer Island, we paddled around the west side of Outer Island, then between Pot Island and High Island, both of which have houses on them, finally heading to Governors Island.  Governors Island is L-shaped and has many houses, one of which is a large home nestled back in the trees which is owned by the cartoonist Gary Trudeau and the TV journalist Jane Pauley.  We then paddled east past Flying Point, at the south end of Thimble Island Road, which runs through the borough of Stony Creek and contains the mainland which looks out to the southwest over the entire Thimble Island chain.

Before paddling back into Island Bay and our original starting point, we paddled another 2 1/2 miles from Flying Point over to Sachems Head Point in Guilford.  This was good practice for the 2-mile open water crossings I like to do between Nappatree Point, Rhode Island and the east end of Fishers Island, New York.  The southeast wind was picking up and we were now heading directly into the wind, so we stopped at a rock outcropping so Alan could use the "natural facilities" and I could put on a light paddling top to stay warm.  After exploring the western part of Sachem Head Point, its harbor, and yacht club, we paddled another mile-and-a-half back to where we began the day at Shell Cove, passing Joshua Cove, between Island Bay and Sachem Head, along the way.

The Thimble Islands are the diamond necklace of the Connecticut coast.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Sea Kayaking around Great Island at the mouth of the Connecticut River between Old Lyme and Old Saybrook, Connecticut


I went kayaking around Great Island yesterday afternoon in the estuary of the Connecticut River with my outdoor adventure friend, Alan S. We kayak together, mostly surf-kayaking in big water in Rhode Island during hurricane season, cross-country ski as a team, and road bike on occasion.

But yesterday Alan had the day off from his therapy practice and called me on a whim. “Hey Bob, we haven’t sea-kayaked together for a long time. It’s time to get the paddling muscles in shape for hurricane surfing season. Wanna take a paddle around Great Island?” I had planned to meet a friend for coffee but was able to postpone that, so Alan picked me up and we loaded my 14 1/2 –foot Merlin sea kayak onto the roof rack on Alan’s car. In a little over a half-hour we were at the put-in in Old Lyme, just off Route 156.

The weather was sunny with a lot of southerly breeze. We unloaded the boats. We both wore bathing suits and long-sleeved spray tops. We did not need our dry tops, which keep all water off the upper body, because we did not plan to need to roll our boats in such calm water. When Alan and I go surfing in our Riot Boogie surf kayaks, which are only 7 ½ feet long and shaped like short surf boards, we almost always wear dry tops because we always roll while surfing. That’s because when surfing, either on boards or in kayaks, every surfer gets wiped out on more than one wave. If you cannot roll up in a surf kayak, it takes a lot of time, effort, and energy to swim back into shore, empty out the boat, get back in, paddle carefully over the rocks in the shallows to avoid damaging the fins on the bottom of the kayak, and paddle back out to the break. In very large waves, like the 12-footers we surfed during Hurricane Bill a few years ago, not being able to have a “combat” roll could put your life in jeopardy. When you surf waves that big and powerful, you can understand why combat is the adjective which applies to the ability to right your surf kayak after being wiped out by one of those monsters. It’s hard to imagine how exponentially more powerful a 75-foot wave would be to surf. The movie “Riding Giants” shows what that experience is all about.

But yesterday giant waves were only a passing thought. Great Island is a magnificent benign-looking wilderness, just one-half hour south of Middletown.  Benign-looking because so green, so wind-swept by gentle summer breeze, so filled with birds flying overhead and diving for food, so quiet.  But wilderness because covered with thick jungle of tall green reeds and grasses, composed of thick dark brown mud, teeming plants and animals and birds and insects all clawing for food and space and life.

Alan and I got into our boats, covered the open cowlings with our neoprene spary skirts to keep water out of the cockpit, and pushed off to the south towards Long Island Sound.  It was mostly gentle water, with some southerly wind swell in the shoals south of the big island, but lots of fun. The shoals are shallow areas, especially at low tide, which it was when we put in yesterday.  In the shallow water the southerly wind whips up the water into small waves which you're actually able to surf with a long boat like our sea kayaks.  I mentioned to Alan what he apparently did not know, that because there are these shallow waters at the mouth, or estuary of the Connecticut River, which shift in location as the tide and current moves the bottom sands around over time, there is no port there.  The Connecticut is one of the few major rivers without a sea port at its mouth, because of these shoals.  Thank God for this or we'd have cruise ships and naval vessels cluttering up our beautiful river as they do in the port of New London, Connecticut, at the mouth of the Thames River and in Bridgeport at the estuary of the Housatonic River.

As we paddled our way north around the west side of Great Island, our progress was rapid because of the waves we surfed northward and the strong wind at our backs.  As we approached the north end of the island, Alan noticed a flock of very large birds in the trees which live there where the island must have more soil.  He thought they looked like red-tailed hawks.  There were also many osprey flying overhead and diving for fish.  Alan didn't know that Roger Tory Peterson, the great bird artist of the Peterson Bird Guides, once lived in Old Lyme, on the banks of the Connecticut River.  Peterson went on a campaign in the 1960's to get Congress to ban the use of DDT to control mosquitoe populations.  DDT was getting into the water system and osprey ingested it.  The chemical thinned the shells of the osprey eggs.  As a result, the osprey were dying out.  Within a few years of the DDT ban taking effect, the osprey population returned.  Now there are osprey nesting stands all over the coastline along Long Island Sound.  Many of these tall structures with osprey nests atop them can be seen throughout Great Island.

I wished I'd had a camera with me when we saw Momma and Papa geese with their 5 baby goslings on the northwestern corner of the island.  They were all standing right on the shoreline, in a 20-foot section where the reeds were absent.  We did not want to get near enough to them to disturb them.  At this point we wished we'd brought some binoculars to see Mr. and Mrs. Goose and the babies close-up.

The southerly wind made it a much harder paddle on the return trip around the east side of the island. We took a detour into a marsh channel with 10-foot high green reeds with brown lower stalks. On the banks of the labyrinthine channel were thousands of tiny sand crabs which fluttered into their little holes in the mud as they sensed our presence as we paddled by.  The channel snaked through the high reeds and thoughts of Moses in the basket as a baby from the book of Genesis came to mind.  I mentioned this to Alan and he smiled in recognition of the ancient biblical myth.  At one point Alan spotted a small racoon staring at us from inside the thick jungle of reeds.  I was surprised that a racoon would make its home on a watery island but there it was with the distinctive white circles round its eyes.

It was hard to turn the kayaks around when we finally decided it was time to go home because the channel was so narrow at that point.  Once back on the river we continued to make steady progress against the wind and now-incoming tidal current.  Having flexed our paddling muscles for the past two hours we had increased our speed.  As we got closer to the launch there were more and more homes on the banks of the river.  Most of these, with some exceptions, are well-suited to the terrain.  There are fewer McMansions which stick out unpleasantly in this area of the lower Connecticut.  On the west side, up in Essex, there are a few areas of extremely large homes, built within the past 10 or 20 years, which scream out "Nouveau riche."  The Old Lyme river homes are older money, more tastefully designed, for the most part, to fit in to the natural landscape in a more graceful way.

We've now entered hurricane season on the east coast.  While I loved yesterday's paddle on relatively flat and calm water, I am more viscerally drawn to the siren song of big-time surfing in Rhode Island.  But this was an opportunity to get back in a kayak after the long winter paddling hiatus.  More Big Water adventures await the coming months.  I'm psyched.  Time to begin practicing and refining the combat roll for surfing.

Friday, June 1, 2012

More on the White Slave Trader, Captain Stephen Clay, whose Home was Near My Black Baptist Church


A few weeks ago I reported on the white slave trader, Captain Stephen Clay, who had a home in the 18th century in Middletown, Connecticut.  Here's the link to that blog post story:

http://wwwbobs-blog.blogspot.com/2012/04/white-slave-trader-once-lived-and.html

My reporting was based on a conversation I had with a reporter I knew who has been researching the history of slavery in Middletown, Eric Hesselberg.  Eric told me there was a portrait of Captain Clay and a photograph of his house at the local historical society, so I went there to see it two weeks ago.  That visit uncovered new evidence which led to a second trip last week.  Here's what I found.

I photographed the oil painting portrait of Captain Clay.  Debbie Shapiro, the director of the historical society, took me to the second floor and pulled a blanket off the old portrait, which was sitting on the wooden floorboards with a bunch of other paintings.  Here's what Captain Clay looked like, in his full military regalia.  He's an ordinary-looking man, benign enough in appearance, probably like many slaveowners.  One sees no evidence on his face of any internal conflict or angst about owning black human beings as his personal property.  There is a sailing ship in the background which probably reflects his status as a merchant who traded in the West Indies, probably goods and raw materials of various kinds as well as slaves.  (I do know from other research I've done at the Godfrey Geneological Library in Middletown that Captain Clay was a wealthy benefactor and active member of the local Church of the Holy Trinity, an Episcopal church.)  His home was only one block west of the Connecticut River, so it's possible the portrait was painted while Captain Clay was sitting for it in his home very near my present black baptist church.


Debbie Shapiro then showed me an old map of Middletown from 1874.  It was by a surveyor named Mr. Beers.  The volume can be found at Russell Library also, in the Middletown Historical Documents room.  The call number is 912 BEE.  Here is a small section of the map on page 36 in that volume, depicting the section of Middletown east of Main Street, south of Union Street, amd west of Sumner Street where Captain Clay had his home and where my black baptist church is now located.  Sumner Street no longer exists.  It was located about 25 feet east of, and parallel to, the present driveway of the YMCA which enables cars to turn south from Union Street into the parking lot for both the YMCA and Zion First Black Baptist Church.  Here is that section of the 1874 Beers survey map. [Note: To enlarge any of the photographs to see the details more clearly, just click on them.]



Later in the day I went to Russell Library to search the historical documents about Middletown there.  I found two pertinent bird's eye view artists' rendering of Middletown from 1877 and 1915.  The 1877 view is by D.H. Bailey and depicts the same area as the 1874 Beers survey map but with a 3-dimensional rendering of the buildings, including the Captain Clay house.  Here is that section of the 1877 D.H. Bailey aerial view.



None of what I found out to this point was a surprise.  Then I asked Debbie to help me locate the photo of Captain Clay's home.  She knew which box it was in in her archives because Eric Hesselberg had spent several days researching the same history.  Here is the photograph.



This is a standard 18th-Century center-chimney Colonial, of which there are many extant examples in Middletown.  What shocked me was the handwritten description on the back of the photograh.  Here it is.


It says " 'The Stephen Clay House' Southwest corner of Union and Sumner Sts Middletown,  Middlesex Co. Conn."   This was shocking because Eric had told me Captain Clay's home stood on the site of what is now Zion First Black Baptist Church, but the church is several hundred feet to the southwest of where Captain Clay's home once stood.

On my second trip to the historical society, while looking through 10 boxes of old redevelopment house and property appraisals and redevelopment studies, I found an aerial survey photograph from August 15, 1968 which was flown for H. Ballard Co. for a report Ballard did for the city's redevelopment project planning.  The report is entitled "Land Utilization and Marketability Study: Urban Renewal Project #2, Middletown, CT."  Here is a small section of the aerial survey mostly showing the area southwest of the intersection of Union and Sumner Streets.

Note the following items.  The photograph looks approximately north.  The original YMCA building and parking lot is in the upper left corner of the photo, on Union Street, which runs from the top left of the photo at a downward angle towards the upper third of the right side of the photo. Below the YMCA and slightly to the right is Zion First Black Baptist Church (see the cross on the south side of the church building) as it was configured in 1968.  Sumner Street is on the right side of the photograph and runs south from Union Street towards the bottom third of the photograph.  The southwest corner of Union and Sumner Streets has a building on it, the roof line of which is parallel to Union Street.  

From the photograph with the description of the Clay house on the back, the 1874 map, the 1877 aerial drawing, and the 1968 aerial photograph, we know that the Clay house stood several hundred feet northeast of the site of the present Zion First Black Baptist Church.  That was what shocked me.

A few days after making this discovery I ran into Eric Hesselberg again at The Buttonwood Tree in Middletown.  I asked him about the discrepancy.  He said what he meant was that the church is located on land which probably was part of Captain Clay's estate.  The Clay estate, he said, included the house itself and several acres of property to the south and west of his home. He agreed that the house itself was not located precisely in the same spot as where the church eventually was built.

It was also obvious from comparing the photograph of the Clay home, the 1874 survey map, and the 1877 Beers aerial map with the 1968 aerial survey that the shape and configuration of the Clay home had changed significantly between 1877 and 1968.

This change was also reflected in another aerial drawing I found at Russell Library, the 1915 Aero view of Middletown by Hughes & Bailey.  Here's a blown-up excerpt of that drawing showing the area in question.


The original undated photograph of the house, the 1874 map, and the 1877 aerial drawing show the Clay house to be a two-story center-chimney colonial with a third-floor attic, a porch on the Sumner Street side, and a small out-building to the south of the porch.  The later 1915 aerial drawing shows the house with the porch and out-building removed.  That drawing also shows the home to have three floors and a fourth-floor attic.  The 1968 aerial photograph also shows what appears to be a four-story Clay house without the porch or out-building.  The 1915 aerial drawing also shows what appears to be another, smaller house or house-like addition to the south side of the Clay home.  It's hard to tell from the 1968 aerial photograph what, if anything, was on the south side of the Clay house in that year.

I was unable to find any records about the addition of a fourth story to the Clay home at the historical society.  Eric Hesselberg told me his research disclosed that the house at some point was jacked up and an fourth story added to the bottom of the building.  He also said a black social club was run out of the newly-added bottom floor of the home. I have no independent source of information to confirm Eric's claim about this and he has not responded to my email inquiry requesting his source.

I have done additional research at the Godfrey Geneological Library in Middletown about Captain Stephen Clay which I will share in a later blog post.  Captain Clay was very active in the Church of the Holy Trinity and most generous in his financial support of the church.