Outer Space

Outer Space

For a stark experience of nature, super-wide views of the Long Island Sound and the chance to take a deep, relaxing breath, there’s an answer off the coast of Branford: Outer Island.

Named for its location, this outermost member of the Thimble Islands is a bird sanctuary, a research/education center and a delight to visit—and getting there is half the fun. You can captain your own small vessel, or you can book a $17 round-trip ferry that takes about 15 minutes in each direction. The route covers about a mile and a half, passing many other Thimbles along the way. Some of them hold one or two grand seasonal homes, while others, unexpectedly, feature rows of houses on tiny lots.

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Center Church on the Green

Outer Island itself harbors one house—the unoccupied former home of the island’s last private owner, Elizabeth Hird—along with a lab building, a pavilion and a shed. About half of its five acres are open to visitors, including a beach no bigger than a good backyard garden. The Sound views, however, are as big as you can imagine.

Ian Bergman, president of the volunteer Friends of Outer Island, says the island’s most picturesque feature is the Moon Garden, a lush space behind a six-foot high stone wall planted with flowers that bloom in moonlight. During visiting hours (8 a.m. to sunset), a circular “moon window” overlooks the Sound and, on a clear day, offers a view of Long Island.

Nearby, a huge boulder on a promontory probably isn’t a moon rock, but it is a remnant of an ice age. “It was dropped off by a receding glacier,” Bergman says, meaning it has weathered at least 25,000 years of blizzards and hurricanes, perhaps looking better for the wear.“The whole history of the Thimble Islands is glaciers receding and carving out massive islands of pink granite,” Bergman adds.

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The Emerson Quartet at the Yale School of Music

His mention of the granite takes the conversation to another island feature: the massive layer of granite ringing the island, though, in its natural state, it doesn’t look particularly pink. But it’s as strong and sturdy as that ancient boulder, a highly valued material for everything from kitchen counters to monuments, including, as Bergman notes, the Statue of Liberty.

Once upon a time, a pair of trees here were monuments. The local Mattabesset tribe named the island “Two-Tree Island” after a pair of tall pine trees that served as landmarks. Bergman says the trees were cut down in the 1600s to deny pirates a safe place to moor. Many years later, he says, two more trees that had grown up in their place were themselves cut down to prevent the British navy from using them as navigation aids.

Today, Outer Island is part of the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge. It was donated to the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 1995 by Elizabeth Hird in memory of her husband, Basil Rauch, who had been a professor of history at Columbia University. The couple had spent summers on the island beginning in 1964.

The McKinney Refuge works in conjunction with the Connecticut state university system to conduct eduction and research programs. Bergman himself remembers coming here in fifth grade, recounting how, during his college years, he conducted tours as an intern for the next generation of youngsters.

I should note that while the island is a getaway from the stresses of the mainland, it isn’t stress-free. Bug spray is advisable, as the black flies are always hungry, and they seem to find humans a delectable feast.

They’re no reason not to go, but a deadline is. This year’s visiting season ends September 25, and, for extra motivation, Bergman says these last weeks of the season are particularly inviting. He points to a lush crop of goldenrod and predicts that, starting around now, they’ll attract large numbers of monarch butterflies.

Spread your wings, and you can meet them there.

Outer Island
Location | Open for the season through September 25, 2023
Ferry Service | Visiting Info

Written and photographed by Jim Murphy.

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