Barn Island: Lessons from nature and history
A bitter wind whipped across the salt marsh at Barn Island in Stonington one frigid morning recently as our group set out on the trail, and I kicked myself for not having bundled up in a parka.
I tightened the hood on my flimsy sweatshirt — the only item of bright orange clothing in my wardrobe. Better to freeze than get shot, I reckoned.
This time of year, the 1,024-acre state wildlife management area attracts hunters as well as hikers; in warm-weather months, the Barn Island boat ramp is the busiest launch site in Connecticut; birdwatchers and dogwalkers typically stroll along well-maintained trails throughout the year; but on this blustery day, we didn’t cross paths with a single other human.
“Everyone must be hunkered down,” I said, as we marched among undulating reeds toward a sheltered woodland.
Barn Island is an extraordinary place to visit in any season — a sprawling expanse of coastal forests, tidal flats, sandy beaches, lush meadows and rocky uplands.
It’s "the finest wild coastal area in Connecticut," William Niering, the late Connecticut College botany professor and internationally renowned wetlands expert, once proclaimed.
Maggie Jones, director emeritus of the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center in Mystic who was leading our five-mile hike, had been a Conn student in Niering’s class in the 1980s, and often accompanied him there on field trips. Since then, Maggie has probably spent more time hiking, running, cross-country skiing and birdwatching on Barn Island than anyone.
“It is a spectacular place that engages all the senses, and the richness of the landscape through the seasons — its geology, history, and nature — transcends experience,” she said.
Midway through our outing, we passed hallowed ground: vestiges of an 18th-century homestead that once belonged to Venture Smith, a former slave who had been captured in Africa and brought to the United States in 1739. He then spent years toiling for farmers on Fishers Island and Barn Island before earning enough money to pay his way out of bondage.
With a powerful build, sharp axe, and entrepreneurial spirit, Smith eventually became a prosperous farmer who settled with his wife and children in East Haddam, where he died in 1805.
His autobiography, published in New London in 1798, is considered one of the earliest written works by an African-American. Smith’s exploits also are highlighted in an exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, D.C.
A sign that marked Smith’s old homestead has gone missing, and we might have missed the site if Maggie hadn’t recognized the tumbled-down stone foundation.
While visitors might inadvertently sidestep this landmark, they certainly would pause, as we did, while gazing at the sweeping view across marshes that abut Little Narragansett Bay. Often teeming with waterfowl, these wetlands were all but deserted at the time of our visit — perhaps it was too windy even for birds. We did observe one red-tailed hawk wheeling above the tall grasses.
Acquired by the state in the 1940s and expanded by 140 acres in 2004, Barn Island was initially designated for hunting and fishing. It since has become one of the region’s most popular hiking and kayaking destinations, a birding area of global importance, and a base for long-term scientific research.
Some of these studies relate to a series of well-intentioned projects that wound up illustrating the unintended consequences of interfering with nature.
In 1931, a contractor hired by the town of Stonington dug a network of ditches to drain these marshes and tidal pools as part of a mosquito control program, but this hurt the insect-eating bird population, so a decade later, the state purchased adjoining property and built dikes to create impoundments for attracting waterfowl.
Unfortunately, these barriers interfered with tidal flow, allowing invasive phragmite to displace some native vegetation; culverts were then installed so water from the bay could pass in and out of the impoundments and restore plant diversity.
Meanwhile, a greater long-term threat looms: rising sea level caused by climate change.
Maggie pointed to low-lying sections of Barn Island’s colonial-era stone walls that are slowly sinking into the mud. At some point, they may disappear entirely, she said.
“During this time of changing climate, undeveloped coastal areas are more critical than ever,” Maggie noted. “Barn Island is important to Stonington, the region and the world beyond as a dynamic coastal resource.”
The easiest access to Barn Island’s trails is off Palmer Neck Road in lower Pawcatuck on the west side of the property. There also is an east entrance with limited parking off Bruckner Parkway.
For boaters, a ramp and ample parking lot lie at the end of Palmer Neck Road. Kayakers and canoeists can venture east through canals en route to the mouth of the Pawcatuck River and the village of Watch Hill, or steer south toward Napatree Point, or head west past Sandy Point toward Stonington borough. More adventurous paddlers may also cut between Napatree and Sandy points and enter either Fishers Island Sound or the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean.
Rewarding adventure awaits, on land and sea.