Any number of unwelcome sounds have sent icy shivers down my back while kayaking – a thunderclap, the roar of a waterfall just downstream, a ferry horn in fog, the wail of a patrol boat's siren when I've inadvertently strayed into forbidden waters – but when paddling the other day with a small group off the coast of Guilford in Long Island Sound an even more chilling blast jangled my nerves.
Bam! Bam! Bam! Unmistakably, shotgun fire.
Instinctively the four of us froze and silently mouthed, "Uh-oh…"
Normally in this kind of situation you hit the deck or run for cover – not an option when you're effectively a sitting duck almost four miles offshore.
As it turned out it's a good thing we weren't ducks, since apparently that's what the hunters were shooting at off Faulkner's Island, where we were heading.
"Hey, Phil, why don't you paddle up to those guys and tell them to hold off until we're out of range," I called over to my buddy, Phil Warner. Phil muttered something unprintable, and then he and I, along with our two companions, Robin Francis and Rusty Norton, drew our boats together to discuss our options.
We could see a small boat cloaked in camo about a quarter-mile ahead on the west side of the island, so we decided to steer to the east side.
It was a clear, unseasonably balmy day with calm seas that made us eminently visible, so we counted on the boating hunters to either hold their fire or shoot in another direction.
As we resumed paddling I gave my best Elmer Fudd imitation: "Be vewy, vewy quiet…"
Happily, we watched their vessel swing around and head for shore, so we gave a collective sigh of relief.
Turns out Connecticut allows hunting of sea ducks through Jan. 20, 2014, so keep that in mind if you're planning any offshore paddling in the next couple of months.
In fact, quite a few migratory birds are fair game at various times, including geese, woodcock, snipe, and rails, so to be safe consult the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection website site at www.ct.gov/deep/hunting.
We observed a few lucky ducks on our paddle, and Rusty spotted a loon, but the real treat came when we passed Faulkner's Island and approached a tiny rock pile called Goose Island – several harbor seals popped up only yards from our boats and followed us for a few minutes. Part of a migration from the Gulf of Maine and points north, these marine mammals populate much of the Sound – particularly the eastern end – throughout the winter.
When the seals swim north in the spring Goose Island become a rookery for double-crested cormorants.
Goose Island, only about three acres, is part of the Faulkner's archipelago, but we skipped landing there because the public is allowed ashore only once a year and we missed our opportunity by a couple months.
Faulkner's – also called Falkner and now part of the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge – was originally called Falcon Island, but it probably should be called Roseate Tern Island because one of the largest colonies in the Northeast nests there.
We paddled past Faulkner's 46-foot lighthouse, built in 1802 and commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson. For centuries it kept mariners off treacherous shoals; now most big vessels use electronic navigational aids to avoid disaster, while some adventurous paddlers deliberately steer for wild water.
"This is an incredible day for November," Rusty told me. "You should be out here when it's rough."
"Calm is good," I replied. Though it can be fun paddling among and surfing on big waves, when the water gets cold I'm happy for millpond conditions.
After a quick break for snacks we steered for shore and caught a glimpse of the camo boat at the public landing.
I considered calling, "Duck!" but held my tongue.
The hunters were within their legal rights to shoot at ducks off the island, and I'm sure they never fired in our direction, but I'd just as soon not feel as if it were open season on kayaks.
I'm sure the ducks feel the same way.