Key West
The Dry Tortugas and Fort Jefferson

Travelogue - April 11, 2002

Last weekend we hopped aboard the Yankee Freedom II for a trip to the Dry Tortugas. The Dry Tortugas are the tail-end of the reef chain which forms the Keys and curves out into the Gulf of Mexico. It's a 70 mile trip over open ocean. I am grateful that I was not among those pasty unfortunates leaning over the stern rail on the lee side, but I admit I considered it.

Yankee Freedom II The power catamaran is one way of visiting the Tortugas (Españiol for "Turtles", the name given the islands by Ponce de Leon; "dry" meaning no fresh water - we had to carry gallons of it with our gear - on the bikes to the dock! Funny, but that's another story). Other ways to reach the archipelago include seaplane, private boat, and a faster boat than the Yankee Freedom II. But we were in no hurry.

Our destination in the Tortugas, Garden Key (photo below right), supports (barely) an ENORMOUS brick structure, Fort Jefferson. Now administered and preserved by the United States Park Service, the Fort is a six-sided structure of two stories with bulwarks on top; cannons on top, cannons pointing out each window on second and first story, covering 360-degrees of potential approaches by sea.

Vaulted passages inside the Fort The interior structure of the Fort is a series of incredibly beautiful vaulted arches, one after another after another. Arched rooms or bays perpendicular to the main corridors contained the cannon, aimed out toward the sea and toward the mote. In the center of the structure is a huge parade ground, containing ruins of long-gone barracks, munitions storage, etc. The whole is surrounded by a moat, contained in turn by a sea-wall, and the Gulf.

Garden Key with Fort Jefferson To backtrack, we had met a very nice lady who loaned us their tent, and that was all we needed. What, no sleeping bags, you say? No bear spray? No parkas or boots or kindling? No flashlight? (For those of you who have camped with me before, I will add: no nail polish, no books, no popcorn, no sodas, no wine, no tablecloths, no nightgowns, no lanterns, etc etc...)

Not necessary, we figured - we just brought two sheets from the beds here, one for under and one for cover. The crushed shells which compose the island are fine to walk on although they become a bit firm and crispy under one's spine. Nevertheless, we figured we would be comfortable enough for just one night.

You can see the small camping area in the trees behind the beach, on the right edge of the photo, above, and just in the tree cover to the right of the beach in the photo below.

When we were erecting the tent at our chosen site, and amid our praise of the lightness and compactness of the tent's packaging, it was revealed that the tent lacked stakes. Or ropes. Or any obvious way of stabilizing the tent. You'd slide the poles through casings in the tent walls, then balance the butt-ends on little nylon open-ended loops and then? Seemed a bit precarious, but HEY! Let's go snorkeling.

Beach During the night the predicted cold front blew in (ha ha "cold" front - well, it's all relative), in the form of a typhoon that would have sent Gilligan and the castaways running for a cave. The first we knew of it was when the floor of the tent folded itself over and rested upon our faces.

Wide awake now, we saw light flash outside. Lightning? No, it was our neighbor, the keen bird-watching Englishman, stalking about with his "torch" in search of his swim trunks which had blown away in the gale. He shone his light on our problem. Indeed, our tent poles had slid through their nylon loops and were digging into the shell-sand, and the fabric of the tent was allowed to slide up the poles, unimpeded, bringing the floor of the tent with it and creating a sort of rolling tent ball. The rain-fly was flapping away like sails of a ship, also independent of the poles.

The mote, as seen from the ramparts atop the Fort Rick created a wedge of his body hold the tent more or less in place, while I slept with the tent floor lying over my face. At least it wasn't snowing! And it was all worth it when we emerged from our tent burrito in the morning and had the island to ourselves, along with a few tourist-weary Park rangers and two-dozen or so fellow campers. The island and the Fort were big enough to spread us around and we decided we'd been dropped on Paradise.

After another excellent snorkeling trip to some coral heads (we saw a GIANT conch, and an old rusting anchor and long chain, and beaucoups colorful fish and plant life) we returned to the boat for the return voyage.

It was a rough trip. But there was occasion for humor: a lady with long bleached blond hair, a flawless tan and chartreuse teensy weesy thong suit was posing for her boyfriend. He was Mr. Big Fashion Photographer, until we saw that his was a little disposable point-and-shoot camera. The lady draped herself over the railing, head thrown back, hair and breasts and butt and legs everywhere, click click click, "that's great, beautiful, oh yeah". Howls of laughter seeped through the closed doors of the passenger area; we weren't the only ones enjoying the show. Anyway, we made it "home" with no sea-sickness nor offended sensibilities.

It was a great experience and I'm glad we took the opportunity to go out to the Tortugas.

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