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Summer on Island Is 'Coolest Thing' for Keepers

They've got two chairs to sit in – one that washed up on the beach and one that they built. They've got a propane stove and a torch, and the floor is much better since they cleaned off 10 years worth of grime. They built an outhouse, too. Veteran campers Jason Wheeler and Elliot Sudal are happy, and they're already enjoying the two months they will spend off the shore of Norwalk, even with all the sweat.

Chimon Island's first island keepers aren't just having a last summer of freedom after graduating from college this spring – they're also working to restore the natural environment of the Stewart B. McKinney Wildlife Preserve . In addition to clearing out invasive species, they're educating boaters who make their way to its shores and they're taking note of the island's other unexpected visitors, such as horseshoe crabs that are laying eggs.

"We wouldn't know this was a place that they spawn if we didn't have island keepers out here," said Rick Potvin of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. That's good news, but it's the animals that aren't coming to Chimon that are of concern. "Once this was the largest colony of wading birds in Connecticut, now there are no wading birds. That's because of invasive species," Potvin said.

Sudal and Wheeler are hard at work trying to change that, brush hogging through the thick Asian Bittersweet and Honeysuckle to create a field. Having the tops cut off weakens the plant and keeps it from producing seeds. Next year, Potvin plans to spray herbicide on the invasive plants, the next step in getting rid of them. "It's a very long-term effort, over five to six years if we get the funding," said Potvin.

The cost of having interns on the island for two months is $10,000 and "a very good investment. We see a lot of return," Potvin said. The four members of his Fish & Wildlife office oversee 70 miles of coastline from their office in Westbrook. Just driving to Norwalk takes time, and sometimes they turn back because of traffic. Sudal and Wheeler don't have to commute — they just have to occupy themselves in the evening, sitting by the firepit and playing cards.

They also needed to make themselves at home, fixing up a cabin that's been unoccupied for 10 years. In the first week they put up shelves, redid the shed, leveled the firepit and built a deck. They also cut paths through the brush, nicknamed a beach "The Netherlands," and showed around fourth-graders from Jefferson, Tracey and Rowayton elementary schools. Unfortunately, Naramake fourth-graders got rained out but got a lesson at their school from the pair instead.

The two met 10 years ago at Har-Bur Middle School in Burlington and have been best friends since.

Sudal, who is originally from Michigan, spent last summer in Alaska working at a seafood-processing plant. He heard about this internship from his professor, and thought it sounded "like the coolest thing in the world." Besides camping, he is gaining practical experience and networking toward a permanent job.

Wheeler is leaving for the Navy in October. "It seemed like a really cool internship," he said. "Good experience, like he said: spend my last summer with my best friend on an island, who wouldn't like that? It seemed like a cool opportunity, a once in a lifetime-type thing."

Have you ever been to Chimon Island?

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