Sunrise at Shea Island off Norwalk. (Steve Fagin)
Ahh, nothing more soothing than the lapping of waves on a sandy beach, leaves rustling in the breeze, a gentle patter of raindrops and a distant rumble of thunder – unless you’re crouching in a tent, at two miles offshore on a small island in Long Island Sound, accompanied by a severe thunderstorm.
“I’m going down harder,” I cried unnecessarily to Declan Nowak, whose tent was pitched a few yards to my left, and to Robin Francis, huddled in his tent just to my right.
“It will get worse until 10 p.m. before it subsides,” reported Declan, who was tracking the flurry on his smartphone.
As the wind howled, lightning flashed, and thunder rumbled, a flurry of expletives erupted from Robin’s tent.
“It’s leaking!” She cried. “I’m soaked !”
All in all, our three-day kayaking trip to the Norwalk Islands could have started better. Luckily, however, outdoor adventures sometimes feel like Broadway musicals – the sun comes up tomorrow.
Well, maybe not sunshine at first, but by morning the rain had reduced to a dense fog. Waiting for the mist to clear, we wrung out soggy clothes and gear, hung them on lines stretched between trees, and strolled along the shoreline of the 45-acre Isle of Shea, one of more than 25 in a chain off Norwalk. and Westport.
At the same time, we were looking south towards Long Island, hidden in the mist. The three of us originally planned to paddle seven miles across the strait to the island in New York waters and seven miles back, but fog put a damper on that plan.
Don’t worry – there are plenty of wonderful places to explore around the Norwalk Islands. Ospreys wept and dove, egrets and great blue herons stalked the tidal pools, cormorants perched on the rocks, the mournful call of a loon pierced the air. It was hard to imagine that we were only a few miles from one of the busiest shorelines in the northeast, about 35 miles from midtown Manhattan.
Native Americans inhabited the mainland and visited the Norwalk Islands before Dutch explorer Adriaen Block mapped them on a trip in 1614. Settlers who arrived later in the 17th century called Shea Island Ram Island; a century later, a Mormon community that held naming ceremonies there used the name Nauvoo Island, which means “new beach.”
Records show the Sheffield family bought the island in the 19th century and operated a fish oil factory until neighbors who complained about the stench forced it to close. The Sheffield Corporation, which bought the island and several others in 1959, hoped to start a country club, but when those plans fell through a year later, the town of Norwalk bought the island and opened it to the public.
City officials changed the name to Shea Island in 1971 in honor of Daniel Shea, a Norwalk native and Congressional Medal of Honor recipient who died during the Vietnam War.
The shallow channels, shoals, sandbars, reefs, rocks and hummocks that surround the Norwalk Islands make motorboat navigation tricky, but are popular among paddlers.
Just before the fog finally lifted, we chatted with three other kayakers from a group called Connecticut Coastal Adventurers; at the end of the day, a dozen other kayaks arrived.
Declan, Robin and I boarded our boats around 1:30 a.m. and began paddling east towards 59-acre Chimon Island, which, like 67-acre Sheffield Island west of Shea , is part of the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge.
Most of the other islands in the chain are private, with the exception of 27-acre Cockenoe Island, which the town of Westport bought for $200,000 in the 1960s to block its proposed use as the site of a power station nuclear.
Many other Norwalk Islands have colorful histories – rumors abound of Captain Kidd’s buried treasure, a raging bull and rum runners.
Although we didn’t encounter any pirates, we soon encountered Helen O’Neill and Jody Novin, paddling out from Westport to greet us. Helen, who has kayaked with our group in the past and knew we were in the neighborhood, had called Robin the night before and offered to put us up at her place.
“No way am I getting in my boat during this storm!” Robin replied
Helen and Jody gave us a nine-mile guided tour of the islands and coastline, including a secluded and serene stay in the Bermuda Lagoon, where they departed.
The sun was shining bright when Declan, Robin and I returned to our campsite in Shea in the late afternoon. All of our clothes and gear had dried well.
A dazzling sunset that night was followed by an equally spectacular sunrise the next morning when we packed up tents, rolled up sleeping bags, stuffed everything into dry bags, loaded boats and rowed to a launch site at the end of Second Street in Norwalk.
I’m already thinking about another trip there – but I’ll check the forecast first.
The Town of Norwalk offers 16 seasonal campsites on Shea Island and four on Grassy Island; Westport offers four campsites on Cockenoe Island.
Sunset at Shea Island off Norwalk. (Steve Fagin)
Mist shrouds the Isle of Shea off Norwalk. (Robin Francois)
Robin Francis, left, and Declan Nowak paddle off the Norwalk Islands. (Steve Fagin)
Kayakers paddle toward the Peck Ledge Lighthouse at the northeast end of the Norwalk Islands in Long Island Sound. (Steve Fagin)