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The Secret Lives of Coastal Islands

Salt Island is a scrap of rock, crested by low vegetation, so close to Middle Beach in Westbrook that people wade to it at low tide. Only a few rotted pilings hint that it ever supported activity other than nesting and feeding by seabirds and shorebirds. Starting in the 1850s, it was the heart of Westbrook’s commerce; not just oil processing but a place where 150-ton schooners unloaded exotic cargo at bustling wharves. Their freight was carted to shore – and provisions, to the island – over a stone roadway exposed at low tide. Today, it’s a vestige of a bygone era when islands (even very small ones) were utterly important to the life of this state.

Salt Island is one of myriad islands that edge coastal Connecticut, strewn down Long Island Sound like beads from a broken necklace. Like nearby Duck Island and Menunketesuck Island, they constitute what are called the Westbrook Barrier Islands, behind which ships have sheltered since colonial times.

These sea-rimmed specks of land have stories to tell.Coastal-Outer Island-0075

In 1893, townsmen dispatched vigilante justice to “pirates” who used Menunketesuck as a base for looting waterside homes. A smallpox hospital on Duck Island burned by the British during the American Revolution was reopened in 1788. In November 1911, the wife and daughter of a schooner captain died when a gale smashed their vessel into the rocks of Menunketesuck. Westbrook men risked their lives to rescue the captain and mate.

The resonant lore of our coastal islands is at odds with their simple names: like Outer Island (most seaward of the habitable Thimble Islands of Stony Creek, Branford); Faulkner’s Island (3.5 miles off Guilford, home of a historic lighthouse, and refuge for an endangered seabird); and Enders Island, Mystic, (site of St. Edmund’s Retreat, a refuge for humans).

The story of Connecticut’s islands begins in the Pleistocene Epoch – the ice ages –
when their physiography was shaped largely by ebb and flow of continental glaciers from 2.6 million to roughly 12,000 years ago. After the last glacial meltdown, sea level rose 60 to 80 feet, creating Long Island Sound about 8,000 years ago.

Humps of ancient continental bedrock melted, cooled, solidified, and remained above water. Most of the bedrock is granitic in origin. In the Thimbles – numbering between 100 and about 300 islets – heat and pressure morphed granite into a form of pinkish gneiss, eons later quarried for structures including the Statue of Liberty and Brooklyn Bridge.

Earth’s finishing touches were added to the landscape by glaciation, wind and water. Geologic maps of the islands show that they are covered largely by till, a mix of mostly jagged rock fragments and clay deposited by glaciers. Contrary to images sometimes useCoastal-Outer Island-0015d by science writers, “glaciers are not bulldozers,” says retired State Geologist Ralph Lewis, who teaches at Connecticut College in New London. They do not plow, so much as dump. This fact gifted Outer Island with an immense boulder, called a “glacial erratic,” that probably originated in Canada.

On all but Faulkner’s, till is thinly sprinkled. Faukner’s is an immense mound of it, about 50 feet high, originally streamlined by ice into an inverted spoon shape called a “drumlin,” from a Gaelic word meaning “rounded hill.” Rain cascading down Faulkner’s steep cliffs has eroded it into a crescent less than half its former eight acres.

Most till in the Long Island Sound region was left by the last, or Wisconsin, glacier, which peaked in Long Island 22,000 years ago and departed from Connecticut a couple of thousand years later. Most till on Faulkner’s is older, from a previous ice sheet, the Illinoian, which receded 130,000 years ago. Atop that pile of till, near a crown of sumac shrubs, stands a 50-foot tower, white against the sky, the eighth oldest lighthouse tower in the nation.

It was built in 1802 at the order of President Thomas Jefferson who, with James Madison, visited Guilford in 1791. Inside the tower, a spiral staircase leads up to a small room where, in high-tech contrast to the antique building, an LED light replaces the lantern of yore. The automated light continues to be owned and maintained by the United States Coast Guard. But this island, along with Outer Island and Menunketesuck, is part of the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge, run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) headquartered in Westbrook.

The battle to save Faulkner’s from erosion is constant. By 2000 the lighthouse stood just 34 feet from the falling into the sea. Funds from citizen groups, trusts and Washington D.C. paid for a massive erosion control project, including a stone wall 20 feet high and 50 feet wide.

The island’s present name might be a corruption of its original English name, Falcon Island, or from Guilford’s Charles Faulkner, a Revolutionary War veteran. Mohegan leader Sachem Uncas, who sold many shorefront properties (including Enders) ceded it to English settlers. Faulkner’s was farmed, mostly by the Stone family, until sold to the federal government for the lighthouse.

In his now out-of-print book, The Island Called Faulkner’s, retired probate judge and Gilford historian Joel E. Helander chronicled the salty history of the lighthouse, manned until the keeper’s house burned down in 1976. During 1813-1814, British warships anchored nearby, engaging in occasional scuffles with Guilford townsmen. Light keeper Solomon Stone agreed to keep the light burning for both British and Americans if he, his family and the lighthouse were not harmed. The Stones and the Brits became such frenemies that a ship’s surgeon once treated Stone’s sprained ankle, while officers entertained his daughters at a lavish dinner afloat.

Inebriates from some of New Haven’s most prominent families were less polite to a subsequent keeper. In 1818, Eli Kimberly turned Faulkner’s into a party island, with bowling alley and bar, hosting pCoastal-Westbrook Barrier Islands-0090icnics and other shindigs. One bash got out of hand when 20 Elm City bluebloods, thoroughly soused, trashed the keeper’s gardens, house, threatened the women, stole hen’s eggs and smashed the lens of the light. Kimberly had the swells arrested, but a jury absolved them.

Faulkner’s also got stormy due to weather. Keeper Captain Oliver N. Brooks, a hunter, musician, taxidermist, amateur scientist and ornithologist, rescued countless passengers and crew from some of the 100 vessels that wrecked nearby between 1851 and 1882. Even today, waters there are treacherous, with a spit extending underwater from the north. Brooks also kept egg robbers from the nests of roseate terns; in this he presaged the future. The elegant birds with deeply forked tail and a touch of pink on the breast are now on state and federal endangered species lists.

Faulkner’s now hosts the state’s only nesting colony of roseates – this season, a scant 33 nesting pairs. USFWS biologists and interns who summer on the island are improving nesting habitat, reduced to 540 square feet by hurricanes Sandy and Irene. They also protect the nests from gulls, black-crowned night herons, and raptors.

Human guardians are reinforced by approximately 3,000 common terns that fiercely protect their own evenly spaced nests. Adults tend tiny gray-downed chicks or sit on eggs, brown-spotted against a background of turquoise, green or olive. The incessant clacking chatter of the adults fills the air. Enter an intruder and the noise mounts to cacophony. The terns engage in a behavior called “mobbing,” splitting the air with alarm calls, swarming in a whirlwind of wings, and splatting the interloper with dung. That’s why workers wear straw sombreros, topped by tiny flags (the birds aim at the high point).

To protect the colony, the public is barred from the island. Only in September, when the citizen’s group Faulkner’s Light Brigade helps restore and maintain the lighthouse, are tours provided from the Guilford town dock.

From May to September visitors are welcome ashore on Outer Island, where two student interns host tours and educational programs. A five-minute ride by water taxi from Stony Creek (also reachable by canoe or kayak), Outer Island boasts two vest-pocket salt marshes. It’s rimmed by pink rock that cradles abundant tide pools, most with their own communities of tiny marine life.

The interns live in a single-level house that was the summer home of a remarkable woman, Killingworth’s Elizabeth Hird, and her husband, Columbia University history professor Basil Rauch. This calm-mannered woman with twinkling eyes, who birthed the town land trust, had been co-owner of one of New York City’s top architectural firms. A female pioneer in her field, Hird died in 2002 at the age of 87. She gave the island to the McKinney Refuge in 1995, as a memorial to her late husband. The refuge partners with Southern Connecticut and Central Connecticut State Universities, which coordinate its educational and research activities.Coastal-Outer Island-0140

Outer Island has a classroom and a laboratory, supported with funds from the citizens group, Friends of Outer Island. Thousands of middle school, high school, college and university students have learned about Long Island Sound’s ecology there.

“We raise the next generation of terns on Faulkner’s and the next generation of environmentally aware people on Outer Island,” says Richard Potvin, the McKinney Refuge manager.

The National Audubon Society designates Faulkner’s as an Important Bird Area. So is the refuge’s Menunketesuck Island, as well as Duck Island, which is owned by the State of Connecticut and managed by the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP).

Its northern end a sandy beach rather than till, Menunketesuck is less than five acres – 170 feet wide and 2,100 feet long at high tide – almost doubling when the water recedes. Menunketesuck, 5.6-acre Duck Island, and adjacent tidal flats and shoals form an ecological complex critical to many birds meriting protection. This year, a pair of federally threatened piping plovers nested there. Between the islands, common and roseate terns dive after fish. American oystercatchers, black and white with long bills of bright orange, often line up on Duck’s jetties, one pointing north, the other west. Breakwater construction began in 1887, making Duck Island an official Harbor of Refuge sheltering almost 2,000 vessels a year.

Winter brings other birds to the Westbrook islands: dunlin, sanderling, purple sandpipers and ruddy turnstones. More than 10,000 gulls have been counted feeding around the two islands after the freeze sets in.

Perhaps most important for avian conservation, Duck Island has the right combination of trees and quiet coastal foraging areas to make it the only nesting rookery in the eastern half of Connecticut for egrets and several other colonial wading birds. The low trees are like leafy apartments; egrets can be seen residing as white splotches amidst the greenery. Their arrangement may seem haphazard, but it’s far from it, according to DEEP’s Jenny Dickson, who heads management of the rookery.

Great egrets prize the “upper floors.” Smaller snowy egrets, black-crowned night herons, and little blue herons occupy the mid and lower levels. Increasingly, glossy ibis, which have expanded north in the last half-century, set up housekeeping there as well.

In recent years, the islands have closed to visitors from spring until the birds depart in September. That didn’t sit well with some of the boaters who picnicked and partied on their shores. It was an old tradition, and not just for the locals. After an enterprising Mainer named Walt Libby bought the island in 1918, he held clambakes there for the patrician New York Yacht Club; member Franklin D. Roosevelt is said to have visited.

Libby was a party animal who kept beer and booze flowing, even during Prohibition. DCoastal-Enders Island-0096uck and its neighboring islands were drops for rumrunners cruising down from Canada, who sometimes waged gun battles against the Coast Guard there. Rum-running crews slept in one of the buildings Libby erected on this island. The last building on Duck was an abandoned home accidentally set afire by young partiers in 1960. A lone chimney remains. Boaters used to navigate the treacherous water behind the Clinton breakwater by lining it up with the water tower at Hammonasset State Beach, but the tower is gone.

Located on Fishers Sound at the mouth of the Mystic River, 11-acre Enders Island has a comparatively quiet history befitting its resident, St. Edmund’s Retreat. It’s a place now dedicated to recovery, reflection, and creativity, both spiritual and intellectual. A palpable peace envelops the island, where chapel bells toll and waves swish. In summer, clouds of swallows swoop low while the calls of seabirds echo. In winter, surf surges over ice-encrusted rocks. Wild wind from the sea whips ornamental trees in the gardens.

Linked to shore by a 100-yard-long causeway, Enders was farmed for generations, abandoned, then purchased at the turn of the 19th century by Dr. Thomas B. Enders, son of the president of the Aetna Insurance Company. He and his wife, Alys, erected a magnificent estate embraced by a great lawn, elegant gardens with reflecting pools, geometric walkways, and elaborate stone walls and arches. Now open to the public, the gardens draw visitors spring through fall.

The stonework, together with the porched mansion (now the main building of retreat) was created in the “arts and crafts style,” a genre of design that began at the end of the 19th century as a reaction to industrialism. After the 1938 hurricane that devastated New England, Enders built a massive seawall that decades later took the brunt of Sandy, and held.

Before her death in January 1954, Alys gave Enders Island to the Society of St. Edmund, an order of Catholic priests and brothers. At first a novitiate for seminarians, by 1968 it was evolving into a sanctuary, Catholic in nature, but offering a variety of retreats for a diverse interfaith constituency. At the same time, the retreat began hosting meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, starting a mission for which it is perhaps best known today.

In 2003, the society turned over the retreat to its own Board of Trustees. Its president remains an Edmundite priest, Reverend Thomas F.X. Hoar. You might say he’s “the soul” of the place, an energetic go-getter, adept at building support and fundraising who also ministers to those who come to St. Edmund’s seeking help. “Father Tom saves lives, not to mention souls,” says one person who received help.

“We are not a rehab,” says Vice President for Mission Advancement Margaret Cuccinello, even though countless people have found sobriety at St. Edmund’s. Until recently, there were no formal programs. But the retreat now operates a residency program for men ages 18 to 25, three months to a year in length, teaching both sober living and practical life skills.

St. Edmund’s has also expanded its educational programs. St. Michael Institute of Sacred Art offers training in stained glass, Gregorian chant, manuscript illumination, iconography, calligraphy and mosaics. The stained glass windows and Stations of the Cross in the retreat’s Chapel of Our Lady of the Assumption were crafted right on the island.

The mystical energy of Enders inspires more than recovery. The peaceful setting led Fairfield University professor and novelist Michael White of Guilford to choose it as the site of a two-year low residency MFA in creative writing. Aspiring writers, ranging from 20-somethings to octogenarians, study there for 10-day periods, summer and winter. Between residencies, students work independently by mail and e-mail with a mentor from the faculty.

Students learn from university faculty, as well as guest authors and writers. White brings in literary agents, editors and publishers from top New York trade houses. Students learn about the business of publishing as well as the craft of writing. It all apparently works. Graduates have published more than two-dozen books, hundreds of articles, won awards and honors, and landed jobs in academia and publishing.

Image Credits: Adam Coppola

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