Kayaking Charles E. Wheeler Wildlife Area in Connecticut
Just off the Connecticut coast on the border of Milford and Stratford lies the Charles E. Wheeler Wildlife Area. This area consists of a tidal marsh feeding from the Housatonic River and the nearby Long Island Sound.
This area is truly a maze, but the absolute best kind. Each time I kayak here I end up in a different direction, taking a entirely new path out and back. It’s truly an adventure that is new each time you get out on the marsh.
It’s a great place for beginners and kids as the water is extremely calm (well, in most places) and the amount of wildlife to see it keeps things interested the entire time. Plus, a great activity for kids (or adults) to do while out on the water is to have them take turns picking the direction of the maze to get back. Eventually you’ll get there, but this is a fun way to bring adventure and keep little minds occupied while out on the water.
The biggest thing to note though is this is a tidal marsh, meaning it’s controlled by the tides. Getting stuck out there are the wrong time of day or staying out too long past high tide will leave you stuck in the muck unable to get back until the next tide cycle. So, know your tides before heading out here.
- Difficulty: 2.5/10
- Time: Maximum time is 4 hours, due to the ides
- Cost: Free
- Hours: None posted, but only accessible in a 4-hour window around high tide
- Parking: Plenty
- Bathrooms: None
- Location: Launch is on an unmarked dirt road off of Court St. in Milford
- Rentals: None Available
- Dog Friendly: Unclear, but it is a wildlife area with a lot of ducks flying around close to the marsh and kayaks
Getting There and Parking
Getting to the Charles E. Wheeler Wildlife Area is easy, but only if you know exactly where to go. Searching in google just leads you to a map, but not to the launch site and there is no clearly listed launch site available. To access the boat launch for non motorized boats, like kayaks, you’ll need to put Court Street, Milford into the GPS. When you get to the end of the road you’ll come to a dirt road and a Charles E. Wheeler Wildlife Area Entrance sign. Follow that dirt road just around the bend and you’ll arrive at the gravel parking area.
Every time I have visited this location there has been plenty of parking, despite it being a fairly small lot. It’s not a crowded area, which makes it a great, secluded place to explore.
The timing of arrival is extremely important, as this marsh is only accessible 2 hours before and 2 hours after high tide. If you arrive too early or leave too late you’ll find that the marsh is inaccessible as the water is too shallow and you’ll get stuck in the mud. So, be sure you plan your arrival, and more importantly, your departure, around the tides.
Boat Launch Area
The Charles E. Wheeler Wildlife Area is a very remote and secluded location. There are no bathrooms. There are no trash cans. Accessible, potable water is not at this launch site. If you do not have a kayak you cannot rent one here, and I am not aware of any rental services that deliver to this area. So, you will need to be prepared with everything you need to enjoy your time out on the water.
The boat launch is a short ways downhill from the parking area. There is typically a gate up, that prevents motorized boat access. You’ll need to be prepared to walk or roll your kayak around this gate to gain entrance to the launch site.
Charles E. Wheeler Wildlife Area: Wildlife and Hunting
It’s not surprising that a wildlife area has a lot of wildlife, but I do want to really stress here that you’ll see a ton of everything. In a 3-hour period I likely saw upwards of 10 types of birds, 50 turtles, and 50,000+ crabs. Everywhere you turn your head you will see some new animal or creature living its life in the marsh.
My favorite, by-far, were the crabs. From a distance you wouldn’t notice them. But, if you slowly paddle your kayak along the edge of the marsh grass at the lowest point in the tide, you’ll notice they are everywhere. As you approach, the crabs will suddenly scatter into all the holes and you realize what you thought was mud was actually a sheet of brown crabs. It’s mesmerizing.
But the birds don’t seem too shocked by this and I saw more than one bird enjoying a crab feast on the edge of the marsh.
If you’re into birdwatching then this place is for you. Everything from the smallest bird to the largest swan can be found among the grass. Most of the time you wouldn’t see them until you turn a corner and they’ll fly out of their hidden nests scaring you half to death as they take flight.
Hunting of waterfowl is permitted in season and with the proper permits.
Traversing the Maze of the Charles E. Wheeler Wildlife Area
The Charles E. Wheeler wildlife area is a maze of waterways and grassy dead ends that it are so fun to get completely lost in. At the lowest passable tide, there are more dead ends than passable areas, but at the highest tide impassable areas become accessible with the influx of water. These points are the best because you feel like a nature explorer, paddling through narrow passageways with grass on either side of the boat.
Did I mention how fun this is, especially for kids (or those young at heart). I love kayaking all the way out to the edge of the marsh, and then at high tide trying to head back through the maze. At each turning point a random guess will take you in an entirely new path and it is so incredibly entertaining and fun to do this the entire way back to the launch site.
Kayaking Charles E. Wheeler Wildlife Area: A Note on Times and Tide
It is absolutely crucial that you keep track of time while you are out in the marsh. The waterways are only accessible via kayak 2 hours before and 2 hours after high tide. Outside of that 4 hour window, this area becomes inaccessible by kayak. It’s such a fun place it’s easy to lose track of time, but if you do you’ll get stuck in the marsh in low tide.
Getting stuck in the marsh means you’re stuck in the muddy, buggy, muck for several hours as it is not feasible for you to walk your way back in the muck. Attempting to will just get your feet stuck as well as your boat. There isn’t a place to exit the boat, and you’ll just be sitting there in the sun for hours until high tide comes back again. That won’t be fun, nor will it be safe. Prevent that situation from ever occurring by really making sure you know what time it is the entire kayaking trip and being back at the launch site by 2 hours post high tide.
Returning Back to the Boat Launch
One of the hardest parts for me while kayaking at the Charles E. Wheeler wildlife area is finding the boat launch when I’m ready to go back to the car. There isn’t a big sign showing you where it is, and with the maze of the marsh it can be hard to locate it when you get a little ways out into the water.
The best guide point I can provide is that directly next to the boat launch lies a a little cluster of houses, including a brown/red house. If you’re looking at these houses from the water, the boat launch will be on the right.
A better tip, though, is to look around and find your own guiding point as soon as you launch into the water. Locate it immediately and use it to orient yourself in the marsh and find your way back. If it’s your first time kayaking the marsh, give yourself some extra time to locate the launch site at the end of the tidal window. You’ll need it and you really don’t want to get stuck close enough to the entrance where you can see it, but not close enough to access it.
Other Tips to Remember
The Charles E. Wheeler wildlife area is a fantastic and super fun area to kayak in Connecticut. However, it is remote and secluded, so be sure to be prepared and arrive with everything you’ll need, including enough water
Also, this is a protected wildlife area, meaning that Leave No Trace is crucial to ensuring that you are not harming the marsh. For kayaks, this means ensuring that your kayak is extremely clean before entering into the water. Cross contamination of invasive species can happen through critters that attach to kayaks, and you don’t want to be the person who brings those into protected areas where they shouldn’t be. Always clean your kayak after use, and do an extra check before kayaking at the Charles E. Wheeler wildlife area.
You’ll also want to note that although the water is very calm 95% of the time, at certain turning points, when the tide is coming into and out of the marsh, there can be a current. I’ve hit this a couple of times, and while it is strong it doesn’t take you far at all (usually just a few feet from where you started). It isn’t dangerous, but if you are going to bring kids kayaking here in their own vessel, you may want to be aware of this possibility. Connecticut also requires that you have a PFD with you at all times, so you may want to wear it when you’re in rougher areas.
But, overall, just have fun! Exploring the Charles E. Wheeler wildlife area maze is a fun adventure that everyone will enjoy. Come prepared and know the tidal schedule, and you’ll have a great time.
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