In the six-mile stretch of Long Island Sound between Five Mile River and Sherwood Millpond is a string of more than twenty islands amid partially submerged boulders, sandbars and mudflats — perfect for exploring and boating, fishing, clamming and bird-watching. Mostly uninhabited and protected by town ordinances, the Coastal Barriers Resource Act and the National Wildlife Refuge, the Norwalk Islands appear desolate and remote. During the summer, a flotilla of powerboats and groups of adventurous kayakers, campers and swimmers are common sights; but in the off-season, the islands sit proud and silent. Blue herons and snowy egrets pick gracefully through the tidal flats.
Some islands are sprawling woodlands and meadow, others are piles of rock and sand. One is so small it doesn’t even have a name, yet Tavern Island is big enough to house a private mansion with grounds and walkways. Betts Island has two sections connected by a spit of sand that disappears at high tide, separating two small, privately owned houses onto each half.
Most of the larger islands are publicly owned. The northernmost, Cockenoe, with its protected lagoon and a salt pond, belongs to the Town of Westport and is easily accessible by boat. Shea Island (once called Ram Island, then renamed for Vietnam veteran and Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Daniel Shea) and Grassy Island are both owned by the City of Norwalk. Although Grassy has better boat-landing areas — Shea’s coastline is full of rocks — both islands are open to the public from May through Columbus Day, and with a permit, campers can stay overnight.
Sandbars, rocks and shallows prohibit access by most sailboats and powerboats, but kayaks can slide noiselessly among the islands. A good place to rent and easily launch kayaks is the Small Boat Shop on Water Street in South Norwalk, behind Rex Marine. Manager Gaeton Andretta considers himself lucky to live and work where he does. “I’m spoiled,” he admits. “The Norwalk Islands are one of the nicest places to paddle anywhere around here. The tidal currents are gentle with the prevailing breeze from the southwest. And on a clear day, you can see Manhattan.”
Andretta flips through a rack of nautical charts, pointing out the tiny rock formations, buoys and tall structures that help a boater navigate the waters. “You can’t get into too much trouble,” he says. “The mainland is always visible, you’ve got the huge stacks of the power plant to connect with, and at low tide, you can practically walk around out there.”
Although it’s certainly visible, Manhattan is about forty-five miles away. Even so, New Yorkers often paddle all the way from the Hudson River, braving Hell’s Gate — the turbulent waters where the Harlem and East Rivers converge. Others drive in from neighboring towns to rent from Andretta, who has all the gear, charts and permit information a boater could possibly need to spend a day or two exploring.
Since the islands are only about a mile offshore, they provide many opportunities for a day of paddling and sightseeing. It’s easy to launch a kayak from public boat launches and beaches. The South Western Regional Planning Agency developed a Norwalk Islands Canoe and Kayak Trail that details a half-day or a full-day loop complete with a nautical map. The guide provides safe-paddling information, tells which islands are open to the public and contains educational environmental material. If you’re not experienced in open-water kayaking, there are plenty of guided tours available.
Rods & Guns
Blake Smith is a licensed captain and fishing guide. Along with Jeff Vannart, he runs fishing tours off Saugatuck Island. Smith is also an expert on all the Norwalk islands’ histories and their waters. He knows where to find good clamming and the best spot for oysters. He’s been boating with his father since he was old enough to walk.
“When we were kids, we used to come here and explore,” he recalls, waving a hand at the shore and maneuvering his Boston Whaler through the shallows just south of Grassy Island. “The deer would give us kind of a bored look and trot off to the beach and swim to another island. This may be news to some, but deer are really good swimmers.
“And there,” he says conspiratorially, pointing at the lone stone building on Goose Island, “is the only thing left of some scientific research done in the 1940s, trying to find a cure for yellow fever. They used island rats in their experiments — and even though the government said they destroyed them so that the island can be a bird sanctuary, we never really believed that as kids. We always had nightmares about giant mutant rats.”
A day of fishing with Smith or Vannart is like being a tourist in your own backyard, with the bonus of catching your dinner. Depending on the season, there are striped bass, bluefish, fluke, flounder, trout and the occasional dogfish, which is a type of shark. Vannart points out an island backlit by the afternoon sun. The two men trade off telling tales. They love their jobs as fishing guides, but it’s clear that it’s not all about the fish.
Fishermen with their own boats can get all the paraphernalia needed for a predawn fishing trip — fishing licenses, clamming permits, tackle and bait — from Paul Hiller of Hiller Sports, a few doors down from Rex Marine and the Small Boat Shop. Hiller’s twelve-year-old son, Tyler, rattles off the kinds of fish he’s caught, while he counts out change for a customer.
Not far away, avid fishermen congregate for bait and gear at Fisherman’s World. Like Hiller, owner Rick Mola is a serious go-to guy when it comes to fishing in the islands. “And clamming,” adds Al Gratrix of Westport. He’s a passionate customer and fan of Fisherman’s World. “Clamming is year-round and you can get a map from Rick that shows exactly where to go. There are beds that are seeded.” He picks up a small metal O-ring and looks through it. “You can’t harvest any clams that you can drop through this ring. The clams you take have to be over one-and-a-half inches across.”
During duck-hunting season, hunters are allowed to anchor and hunt below the mean high tide line. Gratrix, a lifelong hunting enthusiast who travels worldwide seeking everything from birds to big game, says, “People come from all over to hunt there, especially on the last day of the season, which is sometime in January. Everybody knows everybody. It’s one last big hurrah.”
Hiller offers some of the necessary permits and all the supplies needed for that, too. The place is chockablock with guns and boxes of ammunition, as well as archery targets, bows and arrows. An avid big game hunter, Hiller displays pictures of himself and his son in Africa with a recently bagged warthog or kudu and trophy heads of exotic game. “There are plenty of deer out there, too,” adds Hiller, “but you can only hunt them on the privately owned islands with the owner’s permission.”
The whole area is considered a significant coastal habitat and refuge for many birds, especially colonial wading birds like the beach-nesting tern, black-crowned night heron, snowy egret, ibis and double-crested cormorant. Songbirds come and go, depending on the season, and a small sea goose called the Atlantic brant makes a temporary home in the Norwalk Islands before flying off to winter at the New Jersey shore.
“There used to be rookeries all through the islands,” explains Milan Bull, senior director of science and conservation for the Connecticut Audubon Society. “Now most of them, if not all, are located on Cockenoe.”
He advises that the best way to get close is by kayak or small canoe. Herons and egrets pick their way across the sand bar with little attention to passing paddlers, and at low tide dozens of sleek-feathered black cormorants perch on a jagged hill of white rocks a few hundred feet from the island. “Better stay upwind of the rocks,” warns Bull. “They’re white because of all the cormorant guano, which is so toxic it actually kills the trees where the cormorants nest in less than a year.”
Sheffield, the largest island in the group, is part of the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge and is closed most of the year. Public use is restricted to the three-and-a-half acres surrounding the lighthouse, which is maintained as a museum by the Norwalk Seaport Association. Sheffield is one of the harbor’s best places to see seals, which have been returning to Long Island Sound in ever-increasing numbers.
The Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk offers trips that circle the islands — a fall foliage cruise and a winter cruise to observe the waterfowl and harbor seals sunning themselves on the rocks.
In the summer the Norwalk Seaport Association arranges tours out to Sheffield Island to visit the lighthouse, picnic and hike around the grounds, as well as Thursday-night clambakes and regular sunset cruises. This year the association is planning a week of day adventures for children aged 7–11.
From the shore at Calf Pasture Beach, Sprite Island looks close enough to walk to. Boats are tied up to docks and brightly colored kayaks are stacked on the beach. This island is home to family-owned and -operated Sprite Island Yacht Club, accessible by the club’s launch from Langdon’s Bridge.
Vice Commodore and licensed sea captain Matt Gifford describes the club as he walks across the island with his dog Chappy. “I started coming here when I was three.” The dog bounds, ecstatic, through the tufts of grass and along the gravel walkways, headed for the beach on the other side of the island. “It looks pretty big to a three-year-old,” he says. “The clubhouse was the house of the guy who owned the island before the members bought it in 1952. The kennels — he used to breed collies out here — were made into lockers. We have outdoor showers; there’s a bar and a snack bar.”
One edge of the island is a sharp rock bluff, another, a tiny protected beach. It takes no more than twenty minutes to walk the perimeter, and the atmosphere is strictly 1940s, when the island was the summer home of a New York City financier. Captain Gifford squints at Goose Island and the tiny stone hut on its shore. He notes that the hut was built during World War II as a spy lookout. He claims that he never heard the legend about the giant bird-eating, child-eating mutant rats. “Thank God,” he says, laughing at the thought.
Most of the islands are overgrown with thorn thickets and scrub, but also wild blackberries, bittersweet, black cherry, sassafras, juniper and honeysuckle. When Jacob Kozar Jr. bought Betts Island in 1998, he spent the entire summer clearing out a space for his house. He got to know the local vegetation first-hand. “I don’t know what these are, though,” he says, gesturing toward a tall stalk. “It only blooms at night, large white flowers. You can see them in the moonlight.”
Kozar built his house board by board, hauling supplies and bulldozing equipment over on a barge. A labor of love, the house stands eighty feet from the water’s edge, the front window facing southwest so that Kozar and his friends and family can watch the sun set. The Manhattan skyline looks like a toy city from here. A barbecue, picnic table and tiki torches are jammed into the gravelly sand near the water’s edge. One of the half-dozen people who own houses on the islands, Kozar is probably the most frequent visitor. “We’re here almost every day during the summer, and I come out until the dead of winter. I own an island,” he says, shaking his head. “This is my dream house.”
The Coastal Fairfield County Convention and Visitor Bureau can help steer you to boat launches, activities, restaurants, lodging, maps and more: visitfairfieldcountyct.com
The Long Island Sound Resource Center identifies places open to the public for boating, swimming, fishing, hiking and other outdoor activities: lisrc.uconn.edu/coastalaccess
The Norwalk Harbor Management Commission has all the information about permits and fees: norwalkct.org/norwalkharborhistory.htm
For a copy of the Norwalk Islands Canoe/Kayak Trail Guide, go to swrpa.org/projects/trailguide.htm.
A large-scale version of the guide is located at the information kiosk at the boat launch area at Calf Pasture Beach in Norwalk.
For equipment rentals, guided tours and instruction:
Downunder Kayaking and adventures
157 Rowayton Ave., Rowayton
852-0011, ext. 2
The Small Boat Shop
144 Water St., Norwalk; 854-5223
Wilton Outdoor Sports Center
80 Danbury Rd., Wilton; 762-8797
FISHING AND CLAMMING
The Compleat Angler
172 Heights Rd., Darien
Liberty Square, East Norwalk
140 Water St., So. Norwalk
432 Post Rd., Darien
The Saltwater Company
Capt. Matt Gifford
(also the contact for Sprite
Island Yacht Club)
852-1514 (office); 943-2772
Salty Flies Charters
Capt. Paul Koopman
Saugatuck Fishing Guides
Capt. Blake Smith: 247-5599
Capt. Jeff Vannart: 246-9322
44 Calf Pasture Beach Rd.,
Permits and Licenses
Any fishing supply store or town hall can provide a clamming permit, and the rules are simple:
1. Don’t take home undersized clams. You can buy a ring at any supply store or town hall. If the clam fits through the ring, throw it back.
2. You can only bring home a half-bushel per person.
Connecticut does not require a fishing license for saltwater fish.
TOURS AND CRUISES
Norwalk Seaport Association
132 Water St., So. Norwalk; 838-9444; seaport.org
Guided tours of Sheffield Island Lighthouse and Museum and nature trails are $18 on the weekends, $16 weekdays. Thursday-night clambakes are $50 per person.
The Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk
10 North Water St., So. Norwalk; 852-0700;
maritimeaquarium.org The Maritime Aquarium
cruises to watch the seals or just marvel at the
colors of the leaves in the fall: $20.
CAMPING AND HIKING
Camping is allowed on Grassy, Shea and Cockenoe Islands from April until October with a permit. The number of campers is limited, and although people refer to campsites, don’t expect barbecue grills and garbage cans. No fresh water is available on the islands, but Shea does have sanitary facilities. For Grassy and Shea Islands, the fee is wildly reasonable: $5. (Out-of-towners pay a one-time $10 registration fee.) City of Norwalk Department of Recreation and Parks, 854-7806, norwalkct.org/norwalkharborhistory.htm
For Cockenoe Island, call Westport in advance. Only four parties are allowed per night, $10 per night, with no out-of-town registration fee. Town of Westport, Conservation Department, 341-1000.
For the kids, SoundWaters, located at Cove Island Park in Stamford, runs a Schooner Summer Camp that has plenty of Sound-related activities and includes one overnight on Shea Island. SoundWaters, 323-1978, soundwaters.org
July 14 River Ramble
Benefiting local community projects, this daylong family event at Pinkney Park in Rowayton features kayak races and much more: rowaytonct.com
July 28 Kayak for a Cause
This cross-Sound adventure drew 300 paddlers last year, raising more than $438,000 for various charities. Preregistration is required and kayaks are provided: kayakforacause.com