Primitive Camping at the Dry Tortugas

Primitive Camping at the Dry Tortugas
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Ideally, our route along the Greatest American Road Trip should coincide with park seasonality. While we would love to be able to visit the national parks when they are at their best in terms of weather, there are simply too many to visit during the span of one year to make this possible. Even places in sunny Florida, for example, hibernate during low season--October through April. Dry Tortugas off of Key West is no exception. Ranger Mike who lives there full time told us that they typically wear long-sleeved shirts only about three days per year ... we were there for all of them.

The moat wall at the Dry Tortugas. Photo credit: Jonathan Irish

Our initial plan for Dry Tortugas was to explore the island on our new inflatable stand up paddleboards, which we toted along with us. Mother Nature, in her chameleon and headstrong ways, had different plans for us. Day after day and night after night the wind bellowed and howled from the coastline and the wind bellowed and howled right back from inside the fort, and the ocean hissed at them both. We existed somewhere among them.

Kayakers vs. Mother Nature. Photo credit: Stefanie Payne

Being that nature is a rain-or-shine event, we improvised. We camped for three nights on Garden Key as planned, allowing us five full days to explore as a result of the Yankee Freedom III ferry schedule. We took long wanders through massive Fort Jefferson--the crown jewel of the national park--as most whom visit the island do. The long corridors of brick archways, expansive views of the sea from the roofline, and the moat wall can captivate anyone's attention for many hours (and the protection it provided us from the elements did not go unnoticed.) Away from the fort, the keys were brimming with life as migrating land- and seabirds gathered as they do every year, including a colony of 100,000 Sooty Terns who formed a strangely beautiful black cloud overhead. We passed the rain spells by playing rummy, and by creating new ways to entertain ourselves--namely a pastime that we like to call catching up with the Daily News, a game of storytelling that involved assigning personas to the migrating seabirds as they compete for wooden perches rising up from the water. It's an easy game and anyone can play, and it is especially fun after completing another effort, dubbed Operation Yankee Freedom. Every day from 10:30-3pm, the Yankee Freedom vessel shows up at the island bringing day trippers in from Key West, and during that time, campers like us are welcomed to use the plumbed restroom (the hand dryer is a wonderful hand warmer) and buy beer aboard. It turns out that camping + beer + birds = fun in bad weather.

More than 16 million bricks make up Fort Jefferson at the Dry Tortugas National Park, and the photography ops among them are endless.... Photo credit: Stefanie Payne

All things considered, this unexpected weather gave us an opportunity to get to know the park in a unique way, bony legs and all. The unique position of being completely wired out and completely exposed to the elements allowed us to return to humanity for a minute. It's incredible how experiences are altered completely when there is no wifi, and nobody around save a few quiet capers also hiding out and rangers living somewhere in the fort.

We sincerely hope to return when it's warmer so we can take up some of the gems of the island lost on us during our visit--snorkeling pristine coral reefs found in shipwrecks such as the famed Windjammer; kayaking to Loggerhead Key located three miles from the fort, and of course, paddling the perimeter in search of the famed Tortugas (turtles) for which the island is named.

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