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The sound and the fury at Falkner Island

Propelled by a brisk northwest breeze, four of us paddled down the narrow, winding East River between Madison and Guilford, then glided into the glittering expanse of Long Island Sound.

“There it is, dead ahead,” Phil Warner announced from the bow of the 22-foot tandem sea kayak he and I were paddling. Phil pointed toward Falkner Island three miles offshore, at 2.67 acres, barely more than a rocky, crescent-shaped shoal.

Skimming along in front of us, Robin Francis and Gary Williams pulled away in their 22-foot tandem surfski, which I knew would drive Phil crazy because he can’t stand not being the fastest boat in the water. Sursfkis, lighter and sleeker than sea kayaks, are the nautical equivalent of Formula One race cars.

“Don’t worry, we’ll catch up with them on the other side of the island,” I lied.

Islands are favorite paddling destinations, and we in southeastern Connecticut are lucky to have abundant choices: Fishers Island, North and South Dumplings and Flat Hammock (actually in New York, but only a few miles from Noank); Ram, Mouse, Masons, Andrews and Dodges islands just south of the Mystic River; and Sandy Point in Stonington. Farther west the Thimbles off Branford, Charles Island in Milford and the Norwalk Islands beckon.

Many are private, but you don’t have to land on an island to appreciate it, especially aboard a kayak. At least you get to observe how the other half lives.

Unauthorized visitors are not allowed to set foot on Falkner either, even though it’s public property. Formerly owned by the Coast Guard and home to a lighthouse commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson in 1802, Falkner — also called Faulkner’s Island — was known by Native Americans as Massancummock, the Qunnipiac word for “place of great fish hawks.”

Today the island is part of the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge, and the Falkner Island Light, now automated, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Access is restricted to protect birds — according to the Connecticut Audubon Society, 95% of the state’s common terns nest on Falkner, along with one of the 10 largest colonies of roseate terns, a federally endangered species. Nesting season typically is over by the end of summer, so we saw none of those birds as Phil and I approached the island last Sunday.

Also among the missing: Robin and Gary. We somehow lost sight of their surfski and figured they must have decided to hole up on the south side of the island, in the lee of intensifying wind.

A flooding tide had swept our kayak a quarter-mile west of the island, and when I adjusted our course and peered north, my heart skipped a beat. What started out as flat, calm seas had whipped up into a cauldron of whitecaps, stretching from Falkner all the way back to the mainland.

“Well, Phil, you got your wish!” I exclaimed. He would much rather plow through giant waves than bob along in mill-pond conditions.

“Yee-ha!” Phil shouted, as a three-foot wave crashed over our bow.

We managed to stay upright while navigating to the south side. Still no sign of Robin and Gary, so we continued circumnavigating the island before pulling into the only harbor, a tiny opening in the rocky shoreline where we hoped they may have taken refuge. Nope.

“OK, they must have turned back sooner,” Phil said.

I hoped he was right.

No sooner had we steered back toward the mainland, bouncing through chop around Falkner Island Reef, than we were nearly deafened by the roar of a boat engine. An enormous motor yacht sped toward us, veering at the last minute and throwing up a giant wake.

I gripped my paddle and took a deep breath.

“Hang on!” Phil cried.

With flailing paddles, we tossed like a proverbial cork in the ocean. Phil didn’t even feel compelled to yee-ha in delight.

After a few white-knuckle moments, we were back on an even keel, but fighting a headwind that gusted about 20 mph.

Half an hour later, we finally spotted Robin and Gary, waiting alongside their surfski on a beach near Hogshead Point in Madison.

“We decided to turn around as soon as it started to kick up,” Robin explained when we joined them. She properly chastised us for not carrying a radio.

“I’ve been trying to call you,” she said.

Anyway, we were all happy to see each other, safe and sound.

Gary joked that it wouldn’t have been so tragic if he got swept out to sea.

“That’s the way I want to go, in gnarly conditions, doing what I love,” he said.

“OK, I’ll call you the next time there’s a big storm,” I replied.

One last bit of drama, after we pulled our vessels up on land: An unusually high tide, still coming in, flooded the boat ramp and adjoining parking lot. In minutes, waves were lapping at the tires of our cars.

No time to load the boats onto roof racks — we hopped in our vehicles and sped a couple hundred yards to higher ground. By the time we jogged back, most of the lot was under more than a foot of water.

Rather than carry our boats, we were able to float them to our cars.

“Got out just in time,” I said.


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