Silver Sands State Park, Milford
Spend a day hanging out with a 10-year-old and you might be shocked at how differently they see the world. Take, for instance, Silver Sands State Park. I’ve been excited to come here for the better part of a decade. Calvin had never heard of it. Why was I so excited? For the tombolo, of course.
And why was Calvin excited once we arrived and I told him a bit about where we were headed? The goofball legend of Captain Kidd’s buried treasure of course.
Bro. You’re going to get to walk across a tombolo! I timed our day to arrive here at the perfect time to do this thing that you can only do once a day in a very small time window! It’s the only one in Connecticut and in fact, Wikipedia only lists about 70 in the entire world! (No, I don’t think that list is accurate and yes, I realize the Silver Sands to Charles Island tombolo is built up these days and arguably therefore not really a tombolo, but whatever. It’s still one of my little state’s cooler geographic oddities.)
Oh. Wait. I just realized a bunch of you may not be geography nerds. A tombolo is a sandy isthmus. In other words, it is a deposition landform by which an island becomes attached to the mainland by a narrow piece of land such as a spit or bar. Once attached, the island is then known as a tied island. Here, visitors can only walk to Charles Island and back during the hour or so on either side of extreme low tide. I never could quite convince my son that that was really quite cool.
In fairness, he’s been to plenty of shallow beaches where, during low tide, he can walk out forever to sand bars and boulders and stuff – all of which is underwater during higher tidal times. Skaket Beach on Cape Cod for example. And I understand the subtle difference between there and here is lost on him. And besides, there’s no buried treasure up there on the Cape.
Being a Connecticut State Park, Silver Sands is free for residents like me – in the 2020’s anyway. One wonders if anyone from out of state would visit our state parks and cough up the entry fee. Well friends, I’m happy to report the car in front of me did just that:
This is a relatively new park, only coming together in 1960. It was borne of tragedy in a sense. The state’s acquisition of Silver Sands, ultimately involving over 300 parcels, began after Hurricane Diane destroyed 75 homes in 1955. The City of Milford, needing help to renovate the battered beach, asked the Park Commission for help with the nearly overwhelming task. I don’t know how much resistance they faced, or how many shoreline dwellers didn’t want to sell their land, but it took a few years to settle the situation. When the land transfers were complete in 1960, Silver Sands became the state’s fourth shoreline park. I’ve read that you can poke around and find the foundations of some of those long destroyed homes, but I never looked.
There’s also a nice boardwalk here that connects Silver Sands to Milford’s Walnut Beach to the west and the East Coast Greenway even winds through the park’s inland dirt roads. And that’s all great, but I was here for Charles Island.
So to Charles Island we went. The tombolo is probably around 2/3 of a mile each way, but it’s not always the easiest surface to walk on. It has been built up with shells and rocks and watching kids and teenagers attempt to walk on it with bare feet caused me physical pain. Do not walk the tombolo in bare feet. I’m telling you.
There are a bunch of nice skipping stones, so our outbound walk took a while as Calvin tried to beat my record (not a chance, kid). Once on Charles Island, we began circumnavigating it as I started in on the good stories about the place.
No, not Captain Kidd claptrap, but rather I explained how the wooded interior of Charles Island is protected for bird rookeries! It is one of the largest wading bird rookeries in the state! It is designated an Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society, it provides nesting habitat for rare bird species, including great and snowy egret, long-eared owl, and least tern! There’s a huge heron rookery here as well!
Oh there’s more, dear Calvin! Charles Island is also a Natural Area Preserve! Yes, the densely wooded interior – again, a protected area for the birds – was so designated in 1999. How did the island come to be as it is? Well again, Calvin, geologically it is a coastal moraine segment, formed by an unsorted glacial deposit. It’s been here much longer than humans, and throughout history, plans for the island have included a tobacco plantation in 1657, a fertilizer plant, a hotel in the 1880s, and a Catholic men’s retreat center in the 1920s and 1930s. All eventually failed, leaving only a few remains of the Aquinas Retreat, the Catholic place.
We skirted the island, as the interior is off-limits. I think it’s generally off-limits year-round, but it’s patrolled off-limits in August when we were there. It’s very dense to get in there anyway and aside from hunting for treasure that’s not there, there’s not much to do except get squawked at by mama birds and pooped on by their babies.
(The Captain Kidd story is that he landed here and buried his last treasure and cursed it. This was on his final journey to Boston where he was arrested and ultimately executed. Here’s Connecticut Explorer’s appropriately cynical telling of what happened next:
I’m not sure how Captain Kidd became endowed with magical powers, but the legend states that the townspeople of Milford became aware of Kidd’s nearby landing and a posse was assembled to locate his treasure. They tracked his fresh footsteps and dug in the sands until their spades struck the iron lid of a treasure chest. Subsequently, a headless apparition appeared and then dove into the hole. Blue flames poured out of the hole and then magically all of the workmen’s spades vanished and the beach was flattened and smoothed – forevermore disguising the trove.
Naturally, treasure hunting is a popular sport at Silver Sands State Park.
Naturally. Just as Calvin and I reached the far side of the island, the sirens and bullhorns started informing everyone on the island it was time to go. Like, now. We followed orders, although it’s not that dire.
People do die here – or at least require rescue – more often than Milford rescue teams wish to recount. When the water crests the tombolo, apparently a massive undertow forms and people are taken by surprise. The tide also rises really, really quickly in the Sound. Calvin just figured “all the people in their boats” could come and pick up the stranded people. As if pleasure boaters and fishermen want to rescue idiots who ignored all the warnings. I wouldn’t want that type of person on my boat.
I was mildly surprised at how many people were making the trek out to Charles Island and back. Despite my excitement and my decade-long build-up to come here, there’s really nothing to do once on the island except walk back. More than enough for me to do it again, but normal people?
Eh, we’re not concerned about normal people here at CTMQ. You, the readers who are reading this, you understand. TomboLOL.