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    Thursday, August 18, 2022

    Minnie Island an "unknown little gem" of a state park

    Accessible only by boat, Minnie Island State Park is a quiet picnic spot that even people living on Gardner Lake may not know about. (Amanda Hutchinson/The Day)

    After Labor Day, the cacophony that consumes Gardner Lake all summer is all but gone. There is just the occasional rumble and a slosh of a passing boat, the buzz of the summer's last cicadas and the little splashes of a sparrow taking a bath in the shallows surrounding the lake's only island.

    The bathing bird was the only visitor at Minnie Island on a recent morning, a testament to the seclusion of the smallest of Connecticut's 107 public parks.

    "It's kind of an unknown little gem," former state deputy environmental commissioner David Leff said. He first encountered Minnie Island through his many DEEP visits to Gardner Lake, which is a state park in itself, and started investigating its history. In all his visits, however, he never saw anyone else on the island.

    "I would suspect that few people know that that little island is a state park," he said.

    State Parks Director Tom Tyler said that while many smaller forested areas in the state don't have any signage, Minnie Island has also never had a sign because there's no defined point of entry.

    Paul Carolan, who has had a cottage near Gardner Lake for 28 years, said that many of his neighbors also don't know much about it.

    "There's a lot of folks that I know that I have talked to... who have actually never set foot on Minnie Island," he said.

    He said the island becomes a talking point whenever friends who have never heard of it come to visit. He added his 6-year-old grandson, who spends a lot of time at the cottage in the summer, also enjoys kayaking to the island to explore it.

    Minnie Island was named after a niece of Orramel Whittelsey, who founded the country's first degree-conferring music school at Music Vale Seminary in Salem in 1835. The island sits next to the deepest part of Gardner Lake, and its location straddling the border between Montville and Salem eventually lifted the tiny patch of forest to its status of state park in 1925.

    That year, squatters took residence on the island, and the General Assembly discovered that even though both towns claimed it for property tax purposes, it was in the legal records of neither. Instead of conceding to the squatters' claims, the assembly issued an act to transfer the island to the state and turn it into a state park.

    As the centennial for the state park approaches, Minnie Island isn't used for much more than a secluded picnic spot for the adventurous. From the boat launch on the Salem side, it almost blends into the woods surrounding Pequot Ledge Campground on the Montville side. Nevertheless, it's relatively easy to reach by kayak because it's only about a third of a mile from the boat launch.

    The main "entrance" to the island is a steep path that leads directly up from the lake, so visitors have to step into the knee-deep water surrounding the island and tie up their canoes and kayaks to the trees hanging over the shallows. On the island, a path weaves through oak trees, sassafras and ferns to a clearing at the peak, where rocks deposited by long-melted glaciers invite visitors to take a seat for a picnic lunch.

    Even though camping is prohibited, a campfire ring filled with an assortment of broken glass and other debris is proof that Minnie Island isn't a total mystery.

    Tyler said DEEP visits the island a few times a year for maintenance, mostly in response to reports of trash. Carolan said he found some glass bottles when he visited in June and guessed that the island might be a spot for kids to drink and hang out in the summer. For everyone else, it's a secret little adventure close to shore.


    At only .88 acres, Minnie Island is Connecticut's smallest state park. The island straddles the Salem/Montville border on Gardner Lake. (Amanda Hutchinson/The Day)

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