by Gaeton Andretta
Iíll admit it, Iím spoiled. Working in Norwalk has made it easy to paddle one of the nicest areas around New York City. The Norwalk Islands are a group of wooded, mostly uninhabited islands, five miles long, approximately a mile off the Connecticut shore. Although fast powerboat traffic makes the surrounding area a nightmare on summer weekends, these islands are blessed with enough shallow water, sand bars, and rocks to keep the powerboat interference to a minimum. The tidal currents are gentle and the prevailing breeze is from the southwest, and on a clear day the Manhattan skyline just peeks above the horizon.
Scattered among the four smallest islands are six summer homes, but these are clustered together, so a visiting kayaker will see more cormorants, egrets, and deer than people. The local plants include wild strawberries, blackberries, poison ivy, pumpkins, and even cactus. A winter visitor might even spot the harbor seals that sometimes visit Long Island Sound.
"In the past, the Islands were used by the local Indians!"
In bygone days the islands were used by local Native Americans as a summer camp because of the cool sea breeze, the freshwater springs on the larger islands, and the natural abundance of fish and mollusks. Even today, the local oyster industry is one of the largest in the northeast.
Traveling from east to west, we come first to Cockenoe Island, a Westport town park. It is large, wooded and has a protected lagoon and salt pond. A line of rocks on the east side has surprised many unsuspecting boaters. Reportedly, public camping on Cockenoe Island is permitted, but this has not yet been confirmed.
Goose Island is a small, bushy island with a small stone storage shed that was used for various research projects. In the early 40ís, the rats on the island were used to test a serum against Yellow Fever. In the late 60ís, said rats were killed off to allow terns to nest on the island.
Grassy Island is small, wooded, and has the remains of a shed/treehouse type structure. Camping is allowed, but there are more pleasant places available.
Several more islands worth your time!
70 Acre Chimon Island is part of the Connecticut Coastal National Wildlife Refuge. Its large size and dense, thorny brush make it an ideal nesting area for several species of shore birds. This island was once farmland, and ruins of farmhouses and barns are still visible from the water. The public is allowed use of a nice wide beach on the western side, but the islands interior is off limits to protect the nesting birds. Some people resent this restriction, but the price is small compared to the alternatives. The island was purchased for the Wildlife Refuge in 1984, saving it from a developer who had targeted Chimon for a luxury condominium development that would have destroyed the habitat and eliminated all public access.
A jump across middle passage brings us to Shea Island, formerly Ram Island, named for the livestock that once grazed here. Shea Island is a Norwalk Town Park and camping is permitted. Ram Island Bay is shallow and surrounded by a salt marsh, with a sandspit on the south connecting Shea Island to Sheffield Island.
Most of Sheffield Island is owned by the Wildlife Refuge and access is again restricted to the shore. On a north side jetty are ruins of the Island Club. Popular with celebrities of the 1930ís, the club mysteriously burned down after the owner threw a huge party and invited his girlfriend, but not his wife. His wife showed up anyway. . . The golf course, tennis courts, and stables have long since reverted to forest.
In the 60s, Hippies established a Commune here!
In the 1960ís, a group of hippies tried to establish a commune deep in the woods, of which traces can still be unearthed by a wanderer willing to brave the dense thorn bushes and enter the restricted part of the refuge.
The western end of Sheffield is owned by the Norwalk Seaport Association and is open to the public during the summer. There is an old abandoned lighthouse here that the Association is restoring. Trespassing winter visitors will find this an ideal lunch stop.
To the north is privately owned Tavern Island, with a house that was built by the famous showman Billy Rose. Lillian Hellman was a guest here in 1938 when she wrote THE LITTLE FOXES.
Make room for the Oyster Boats!
There are several other islands and exposed sandbars that make for great exploring and gunkholing. Your year round companions will be the oyster boats from Norwalk, so please be safe and give them plenty of room to swing on their trawls.
Access to the islands is easy with a little local knowledge. For the eastern islands use the free state launch ramp, located on the east side of the Saugatuck River, directly under I-95, off exit 17. For the western islands, get off 95 at Exit 12, and turn right into Rowayton. The dock is to the right, immediately after you pass the stores, offices, and marinas. The best access is from Norwalkís Calf Pasture Beach, which has a cartop boat launch site. Unfortunately, the Summer entrance fee for nonresidents is an outrageous $15. Almost as good is an unofficial put in at the western foot of Second Street in East Norwalk, one mile up the Norwalk River from Calf Pasture Beach. There is also a path to the water from the southeast corner of the east parking lot in Veteranís park. Off season, Calf Pasture is free to anyone. If you are planning to camp, donít use Calf Pasture or Veteranís Park as the town advises against overnight parking.
When you visit our islands, stop in and say hello.
I manage the Small Boat Shop, located at 144 Water Street, S. Norwalk, Ct.,
(203)-854-5223 and Iíd be happy to go over the local charts with you.
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