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(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)

The Norwalk Islands are a group of over 25 islands off the coast of Norwalk City and Westport Town in the state of Connecticut in north-eastern United States, in an Atlantic Ocean estuary called Long Island Sound. Most of the islands are about a mile from the coast and form a chain some six miles in length more or less parallel to the coast. Manhattan skyscrapers 40 miles to the south-west can be seen from the islands on a clear day.

The islands are what geologists call terminal moraines. They were formed from glacial debris including gravel and rocks at the southern edge of an ice sheet which covered the state 17,000 years ago. This debris originated in the Norwalk River and Saugatuck River catchment areas and was pushed downstream by glaciers. Gravel, rocks, and boulders are a feature of the islands.

They are used for various recreational activities, including kayaking, fishing and hunting, swimming, camping, and bird watching. Some of the islands are privately owned, while others belong to Norwalk and Westport governments, and to the federal Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge. This refuge includes various parts of Connecticut’s shoreline and is named after the late congressman who was instrumental in setting it up in 1972. The Norwalk Islands are an important environmental area and are protected by town ordinances, as well as federal legislation such as the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act of 1966, the Endangered Species Act of 1973, and the Coastal Barrier Resources Act of 1982.

Kayakers frequent the islands, some of them paddling the 40 miles from New York City. The water is usually calm and the currents are gentle. A good landmark is the power plant at Manresa Island, which is not actually an island but a peninsula on the western side of the mouth of the Norwalk River. The main things kayakers need to look out for are larger craft and also fog which can descend on the Sound without much warning. A brochure showing a canoe and kayak trail with half-day and full-day loops is available from the South Western Regional Planning Agency. There are guided tours by kayak too.

Fishing and hunting are popular pastimes at the islands. Fish that can be caught in the surrounded waters include trout, flounder, bluefish, striped bass, dogfish, fluke, bonito, and false albacore. There are clamming beds too. Ducks can be hunted below high tide during duck-hunting season. Deer hunting is possible on the privately owned islands if the owner gives permission.

An abundance of wildlife inhabits the islands. Many birds can be found on Sheffield Island, including ospreys, herons, songbirds, shorebirds, terns, and various wading birds. Waterfowl such as black ducks, brants, and scoters can be seen in the surrounding waters. Cockenoe Island is becoming an even larger home for birds than Sheffield Island. Harbor seals also live on Sheffield, mainly at the south-western end, and kayakers are asked to stay at least 50 yards from them. Deer inhabit a number of islands, swimming to them from the mainland. Plants on the islands include sassafras, bittersweet, juniper, honeysuckle, and thorn thickets, as well as black cherry and blackberry bushes.

The four largest islands in the Norwalk group are Chimon, Sheffield, Shea, and Cockenoe. Chimon Island is the largest, with an area of 59 acres and located directly opposite Norwalk Harbor. It is part of the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge. The south and east coasts are covered with boulders, while the north and west coasts have a gravel beach. Boaters and kayakers can land at this beach year round. They cannot land elsewhere on the island between 1 April and 15 August due to bird nesting. Overnight camping is prohibited.

Sheffield is the next largest island at 51 acres and is at the south-western end of the chain. Rocks and boulders cover the shore. It is also part of the McKinney Refuge and is closed most of the year to protect bird nesting areas. However, tours are available in summer to visit the lighthouse which was built in 1868. A trail of over one mile has been established for public access at certain times. Winter cruises to see the seals and waterfowl are run by Norwalk’s Maritime Aquarium.

Slightly smaller at 45 acres is Shea Island. It is situated between Chimon and Sheffield islands and is owned by the Norwalk City government. The public can access it from May to October and can camp with a permit at one of 16 campsites. Restrooms are available on the island. Again, the shoreline is covered with rocks and boulders. Shea Island is subject to a number of restrictions such as no alcohol, no glass containers, no dogs, no tampering with trees and other plants, no hunting on the island itself, no open fires apart from on the beach, and no fireworks anywhere. The regulations apply to Grassy Island too. No garbage is to be buried or otherwise left on Shea, Grassy, or Chimon islands.

Cockenoe Island is at the north-eastern end of the group, opposite Westport and owned by the government of that town. Most of the bird rookeries are now located on this island. The guano of the cormorants is toxic to trees and can kill them after the birds nest in them for best part of a year. Camping needs to be booked as only four parties are allowed there per night.

Among the other islands, Grassy Island, just to the north-east of Chimon Island, is one of the larger ones. It is open between May and October and camping is permitted. Goose Island, to the east of Grassy Island, has an interesting history. Research may have been conducted there to find a cure to yellow fever. A small stone hut on the island may have been built as a spy lookout in World War II. Sprite Island, north-east of Calf Pasture Beach on the eastern side of Norwalk Harbor, was owned by a New York financier who bred collies there. He sold it to the Sprite Island Yacht Club in 1952, who converted the kennels into lockers.

The Norwalk Islands offer a variety of activities for locals and tourists alike. The area is subject to various restrictions in order to preserve its fragile environment. It is best to check these restrictions before visiting the islands. The regulations are commonsense rules that will protect the islands and their wildlife, and allow future generations to enjoy the area as much as people do today.