The Mystic River estuary has many nooks, crannies, and islands filled with history, making it a great place to explore. You’ll need a shallow draft boat to do this, a kayak or canoe is perfect. A small catboat is pretty good too and I was excited to be invited for a shakedown cruise with Dane, a friend who owns one.
Up the Mystic River, from the West Mystic Wooden Boatyard, at Willow Point is Sixpenny Island. It’s a nature preserve and ever since seeing it on a chart of the Mystic River it’s been on my list of places to visit. I came to the West Mystic Wooden Boatyard to launch a dinghy. The boatyard, owned by a friend is sort of part museum and part boatyard. The place is filled with old maritime relics and wooden vessels, all with a history, waiting to be rescued. Some will find homes; others will be broken up and thrown into a dumpster like discarded dreams.
The people at the yard are, if anything, more interesting than the vessels and, like them, have interesting stories. How had they come to this haven on the Mystic River? People are here because they love it, an old-timey yard with lots of history. It almost feels like any moment Captain Ahab could come striding down the dock.
It was a perfect day for a sail on the Mystic River. The wind was just strong enough that we didn’t have to reef, but we heeled over in the gusts. A strong sun beat down but the air was cool. I asked Dane if we could sail to Sixpenny Island. “Sure,” he said. “In fact, there’s a cut in the middle of the island created by a recent storm that I’ve sailed through. We can try to sail through it today.”
No one I’d spoken with, including the Mystic Historical Society, knew how Sixpenny Island got its mysterious name. Pirates I wondered? A map showed that most of the 35-acre island was a wildlife preserve. Part of the island is owned by Amtrak and their railroad tracks cut across the backside of the island. One old man I spoke with told me a man lived in a shack on the island in the 1930s but was swept away in the Great Hurricane of 1938.
We beat up into the lee of the island. “There it is,” said Dane. “We’ll have a look, if it seems okay we’ll give it a try.” The catboat skirted an old float covered with shells from seagulls. A seagull buffet I thought as we swung into the narrow entrance. The whole marsh was only about two or three feet out of the water. Geese, cormorants, terns, and gulls screamed at our trespassing. An Osprey flew over carrying dinner in its talons for its young. “A bit of African Queen here,” I quipped to Dane. He smiled as the catboat slowly sailed up a narrow channel dug by the Conservation Corp in the 1930s for the mosquito abatement program.
We entered a small pool with just enough water to float the boat. Dane gently guided the boat into the bank. “If we had lunch with us this would be the perfect spot to dine.” He was right, the outside world had receded and we were the only ones there enjoying the warm sun in this primordial marsh.
When it was time to leave Dane climbed out of the boat on to the bank of the marsh and pushed us off in the direction of a little channel. “You can’t do that with just any boat, that’s why fishermen in New England used these small catboats. They could get up into the shallows and get a mess of clams, scallops, oysters, or mussels and still sail fast back to the market.
As the catboat pulled away from the island I thought about the many historic places I still wanted to explore on the Mystic River. If you’d like to experience the Mystic River you can rent a kayak or paddleboard at Adventure Mystic. And don’t forget to stop at the ice cream dock at the Mystic Drawbridge Ice Cream for a delicious end to your adventure.