This is a printer-friendly version of an article from

06/14/2017 12:00 AM

A Gem Among the Thimbles

The island, reachable by kayak, powerboat, or ferry, is open weekdays until sunset.Photograph by Kelley Fryer/elan Magazine

Looking for a worthwhile daytrip adventure this summer? Reached in minutes by ferry, paddle power, sail or small boat, Outer Island welcomes all to its unique Thimble Island refuge.

The furthermost of Stony Creek's storied Thimble Islands chain, five-acre Outer Island is part of the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge. Like the prongs of Neptune's trident, the refuge incorporates preservation, education, and appreciation to create a powerful tool that serves to protect and support this Long Island gem.

Located off the southeast coast of Branford in Stony Creek Harbor, it's part of a chain of exclusive islands, most of which host summer homes owned by a lucky few. Among them, Outer Island stands alone for many reasons, not the least of which is this: "It's the only place in the Thimble Islands where members of the public can actually visit," says Shaun Roche, Visitors Services Manager of the McKinney Refuge.

The island's infrastructure supports the visiting public with a floating dock, observation deck and walkway, and Educational Pavilion.  Responsible picnicking is welcome at the pavilion, sundeck, or on the famed pink granite rocks. On summer weekends, flocks of kayakers pull up to Outer Island's shores, as groups take advantage of the island's beautiful respite. Many individuals and groups also grab a ride via Thimble Island Ferry service to go out play, explore, and learn.

"It's a cool island because of its many micro-habitats in one space," says Roche. "There's salt marsh, the inter-tidal zone with tidal pools and different creatures like crabs and snails, a little bit of upland, a tiny bit of forest that you can explore and see songbirds and native animals, and views from the shore of terns and other sea birds, fishing on open water. It's a neat place."

Part of the 11-unit, 70-mile stretch of the McKinney Refuge of the Connecticut shoreline, Outer Island is buoyed up by ongoing efforts of the refuge staff (an arm of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service) with support from all-volunteer Friends of Outer Island (formed in 2002) and a research-internship consortium of four state college environmental and marine studies programs.

Outer Island's marine lab was once the boathouse of past island owners Leonard and Grace Weil, who bought the site rock, stock, and barrel in 1927. When the stock market crashed in '29, the Weils made the boathouse their new home. Like a port in a storm, they relied on Outer Island to sustain their family of six, raising goats, ducks, rabbits, and chickens on the island where they also kept a burro. They grew vegetables in the summer and no doubt took sustenance from the Sound's wealth of fish and shellfish; Grace came to be known as one of the area's first lobsterwomen.

That's just one piece of colorful Outer Island history that intern Island Keepers and volunteer docents are ready, willing, and able to share with guests. The college interns, trained by McKinney Refuge, take Island Keeper weekly summer duties. Weekends and other off-days see the island manned by Visitor Services volunteers, or docents, who are trained members of the Friends.

While Outer Island is steeped in history, perhaps the most important year is 1995. That's when Elizabeth Hird donated her summer island home of over 30 years to be used for wildlife protection and education. She continued to live on the island until her passing in 2002.

"Elizabeth's concept was to keep Outer Island open for the public not only to share in its beauty, but to help with its conservation and education," says Virginia Baltay, Friends' vice president and one of the group's founders.

Becoming a Friend can be as simple as becoming an annual member (yearly dues are $10 student, $20 individual, $30 family) or by joining and then also signing on to help the Friends' hands-on volunteer corps.

"If you become a member, you can certainly be an active member; but you can also be a member just to help support this government-protected land that's accessible to the public," says Baltay, who also serves on the committee of the National Wildlife Refuge Friends organization.

Donations are also always welcome to help the Friends support the island (accepted online or dropped off in the donation collection box on the island). Another way to help support Outer Island is to sign the guestbook on the day of your visit. Your signature helps Friends and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service demonstrate to Congress this island refuge's importance to the public, says Baltay.

"There are 465 refuges across the nation, and Outer Island is one of them," says Baltay. "So it really depends on the public getting involved."

For Baltay, " passion is the educational piece," she says of her work to support Outer Island. "It's a wonderful place for environmental science education. We have a very active refuge, and we do a lot of education on what refuges protect, like the tern population on Faulkner's Island."

Visible from Outer Island and located about a mile away in Guilford, Faulkner's is part of the McKinney Refuge and a seasonal stop over for protected Roseate Tern.

"Because we're an active refuge, you might not see as many birds nesting here, but we do a lot of education about that, to assist the government in helping to build awareness about the importance of these public lands," says Baltay.

While regularly gathering groups of day-trippers, paddle enthusiasts, and school kids helps to build support, the Friends work on other creative ways to attract folks from other areas of interest.  This summer, at least two outdoor yoga sessions are planned (check for details) for the island's serene surrounds.

"The Friends organize and conduct different workshops, and the yoga workshop has really picked up," says Baltay. "When you do yoga there, you understand the natural beauty of that place."

Beyond offering inner peace at Outer Island, the Friends also host events such as Citizen Science Research Day (hands-on lecture and field experience, in partnership with McKinney Refuge and state university system) and Interpreting Nature through Art (take a late-day ferry trip to the island for a landscape/seascape painting workshop). Details on all programs are at .

With their enthusiasm for exploring, kids are the perfect guests for Outer Island, adds Baltay, a former intermediate school science teacher. Thanks to a program founded by Baltay with a National Science Teachers grant, Branford eighth graders visit Outer Island each fall to help with research, including an on-going population count of an invasive species, the tiny Asian shore crab.

Having the Friends assist McKinney Refuge is "extremely helpful," says Roche.

"The Friends work hand-in-hand with us. They recruit volunteers, they help raise money and they write grants for awards that are available to non-profits," he says. "We couldn't have the refuge open as often as it is without the volunteers and our Island Keepers."

The summer intern Island Keepers are selected and trained by McKinney Refuge with assistance from the team of the Connecticut State University system. During the academic year, dozens of university students conduct research and produce data and information packing Outer Island's Research and Education website ( The website also provides Outer Island's cool live webcam views, accessible year-round.

As a post for scientific studies, Outer Island is a treasure and a balancing act, says Vincent Breslin, a Southern CT State University Professor of Environmental Studies and Marine Studies. Breslin is also Outer Island's research/education program coordinator.

"It's a delicate balance because it's a wildlife refuge, first and foremost – it's set aside for breeding birds and other animals that utilize it as a habitat," says Breslin. "So you have to balance that with the goal of increasing public access and programming on the island. And that's working; which is really a credit to the McKinney Refuge, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Friends and the state university system."

Interested Outer Island citizen scientists can gather some of their own data during their visit, he adds.

"Our citizen scientists can work with the interns to learn about our Long Island Sound water-quality monitoring," says Breslin. "So they can go out there and do their own water-quality monitoring with the gear we have on the island. We really like to get people engaged in learning about Long Island Sound."

By the way, this isn't your grandfather's Long Island Sound. As someone who has frequented Outer Island for the past 15 years, Breslin says he heartily encourages those who may feel the water will be less than sparkling to come and have a look for themselves.

"It's one of my goals in my professional life to reacquaint students and the younger generation with Long Island Sound. Sometimes they talk to their parents or grandparents, who tell the all these horror stories about the Sound. Environmental legislation has made a tremendous difference," says Breslin. "For example, we have a thriving oyster fishery. You can eat oysters out of Long Island Sound -- and I've eaten them!"

Breslin also helps Outer Island make its educational point by helping coordinate field trips for school groups (second grade through high school).

"If teachers of student groups are interested in coming to Outer Island, we'll try to tie in educational programming with the curriculum they teach in their classrooms," he says.

Roche says McKinney Refuge is grateful for the active support of the state college system in helping extend the refuge's educational reach. This spring, for the fourth year in a row, a group of inner city kids came out to participate in Outer Island's Nature of Learning environmental education program.

"When we bring these fourth graders from New Haven out to the island, it's really a way for kids who live in a town that's located right along the coast of Connecticut, on Long Island Sound, to get to see many types of micro-habitats in one space," says Roche.

From students to citizens, last year, a grand total of 2,144 members of the public set foot on Outer Island. Open "non-stop" daily from 8 a.m. to sunset this summer, Baltay says this unique island refuge is waiting to welcome many more.

"It's the only island in the Thimbles that has a welcome sign out," says Baltay.

Photograph by Kelley Fryer/elan Magazine
Photograph by Kelley Fryer/elan Magazine
Photograph by Kelley Fryer/elan Magazine
Photograph by Kelley Fryer/elan Magazine