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.