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Seals and shipwrecks off Falkner Island

Enormous gray seals splashed impatiently among the waves in Long Island Sound the other morning, eager for us to vacate Goose Island, where they had been lounging when we paddled ashore.

“OK, OK, we get the message,” I told the animals. “We’ll be out of here in a few minutes.”

Our group of seven kayakers had stopped for a quick snack on this tiny islet four miles south of Guilford, en route to our next destination, Falkner Island, a mile farther east.

We weren’t hurrying just to appease the petulant pinnipeds; forecasters warned that a squall with gale-force winds would roar through later that afternoon.

“Let’s go, let’s go!” Phil Warner urged.

“I’m still eating!” grumbled Robin Francis, shoving the last bite of a sandwich in her mouth. The rest of us — Dan Bendor, Kurt Hatem, Andy Lynn, Declan Nowak and I — were already dragging our boats back in the water.

We had launched earlier with an ebbing tide and light breeze from a state boat ramp on the East River, then cut across Guilford Harbor and passed Mulberry Point into open water. Had we kept going past Goose Island and Falkner Island across the widest point of the sound, we wouldn’t hit land for another 16 miles in Riverhead, Long Island.

If you’re not paying attention, it’s easy to miss Goose Island — or worse, crash into it. The site of several shipwrecks dating back to the early 19th century, the island barely measures half an acre. Guarded by rocks, Goose is almost entirely submerged at high tide.

No wonder it’s uninhabited — except for migrant gray and harbor seals, as well as roosting herring gulls, roseate terns, great black-backed gulls and double-crested cormorants.

Seals and birds are also the only occupants on Falkner. This island is part of the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge, and human access is restricted from May to August during the nesting season of roseate terns.

An east wind began to pick up as we steered toward Falkner, reminding me of a fall day two years ago, when friends and I last kayaked to the 2.87-acre island. Back then, powerful gusts whipped up churning whitecaps.

On another kayak trip to Falkner, we found ourselves in the line of fire from a boatful of duck hunters. Just once, I would like to enjoy a drama-free paddle there.

At least the first half of our most recent voyage was effortless. We paddled leisurely, chatted with a trio of fishermen whose boat was anchored a mile or so offshore — “Nothing biting today,” they complained — and maneuvered toward the west side of Goose Island to stay in the lee.

Goose Island is owned by Joel E. Helander of Guilford, a retired probate judge, historian, and author of the book “The Island Called Faulkner.”

Native Americans first set foot on the island thousands of years ago; its Quinnipiac name, Massancummock, translates to “the place of the great fish hawks.” Colonists initially called it Falcon Island, and then Falkner or Faulkner — by various accounts, either because the name sounded like “falcon,” or because the Faulkner family lived there in the early 1700s.

The U.S. Board on Geographic Names tried to settle the confusion in 1891 when it established Falkner as the official name, but some locals continue to refer to the island as Faulkner.

Henry Whitfield and other founders of Guilford purchased the island from the Mohegan tribe’s sachem, Uncas, in 1641. Falkner subsequently changed hands several times until 1801, when the U.S. government bought it for a lighthouse.

Falkner Island Light, commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson, was constructed in 1802, and rebuilt twice, in 1851 and 1871. Automated in 1978, it is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

We kept our eyes fixed on the tower as we paddled into building seas.

“Gonna be a bit bumpy on the ride back,” Phil said with a grin. He lives for surfable swells; I found myself thinking about all the shipwrecks.

No time to land — we paddled counterclockwise around the island, and then steered north back toward Guilford.

“Where are we heading?” I asked, staring at my deck compass. From our offshore position, it was difficult to discern the mouth of the East River.

Among seven paddlers, we had seven different opinions — none of us had used GPS to mark our exact destination. Phil thought we should aim farther east, while Kurt suggested west. Our group split up, not that it mattered. We just needed to head for land; once we got closer to shore, the river would be visible.

Regardless of the route, one thing was certain: The waves were getting bigger.

“Yee-hah!” Phil exclaimed, riding the crest of one comber after another.

Less than an hour later, it became clear that Kurt, and Robin, who followed him, had made the right call. By then, they made it to the protected river while the rest of us were still getting tossed around.

“You were right,” I told Kurt, when we joined him a few minutes later.

Dan checked the weather report on his phone.

“Good timing,” he said. “They just posted a small-craft warning.” Not long afterward, there indeed were gale-force winds, and even a reported tornado farther west in Pawcatuck.

Like the rest of us, Andy, who was making his maiden voyage to Falkner, was happy to be back on terra firma after an 11-mile excursion.

“What I like about these paddles is that they take me to the edge of my comfort zone and then push that boundary out,” he said.

 

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