Tuesday, June 05, 2007
So here is this months "UNEDITED" magazine article. My editor, Ted is learning spanish and searching out a young bride in Guetamala for the next six weeks. Make a comment if you find any mistakes.
The great thing about kayaking is that it can introduce you to special places in a way no other sport can. Paddling gets you down low, close to the earth and forces you away from the normal view of things. It also takes you away from the smells and sounds of other people, their highways, sidewalks, and their electronic noisemakers. Florida’s Dry Tortugas National Park is a prime location to experience this awesome power.
So pack your camping gear and kayaks and drive till the road ends in Key West. Plan on arriving the night before the ferry ride over to the island. Park your car at the city parking lot. It’s safe and should only cost about $30. As a camper you will have to be at the docks by 6:30am. I suggest just staying up all night enjoying everything Key West has to offer. There will be plenty of time to sleep it off on the 70-mile boat ride over.
Upon reaching Garden Key and the Enormous red brick fort, grab one of the carts and get your stuff to the campsites by the beach. You will want to hurry so you wont miss the walking tour of the fort given by the ferry staff. Afterwards stuff your gut on the provided lunch and take extra for later. From here on out, you’re on your own (ferry operators can’t re-supply campers).
The ferry leaves around three in the afternoon. Once gone, with all the tourists, it gets nice and quiet. Now is the chance to snorkel outside the forts moat. The areas around the old coal pilings offer the greatest sights. On an average swim you will see nurse sharks, Jew fish, groupers, snook, stingray, spotted eagle rays, giant tarpon, and countless tropical fish. Trust me when I tell you “Its amazing”!
I suggest heading to the top of the fort for sunset, bring some bubbly and a blanket. The fort closes at dark so you will have to move the picnic to a moat wall or the beach. If you don’t own a star chart purchase one in the gift shop because this island is 70 miles away from any lights, the stars come out at night.
In the morning take off with the kayaks before the morning ferry arrives. If the wind is down, head over to Loggerhead key. It’s the one with the huge black and white lighthouse. It’s under a three-mile paddle and there is heaps of snorkeling opportunity between islands including a French shipwreck. Make sure you bring provisions, snorkeling gear, and sun protection. Once on the island take a tour of the buildings and lighthouse (no, you can’t walk the stairs to the top).
The highlight of this particular key is the snorkeling area known as “little Africa” on the backside of the island. Plan on spending most of your day face down in the water in total disbelief over the shear amount of colorful life on the reef. On the way back to your kayaks from swimming, check out all the different Cuban refugee boats that have washed up on shore. It’s amazing these boats made it as far as they did!
Back at camp enjoy a cold one and try to imagine that way back in 1513 famed explorer Ponce De Leon discovered the islands and named accordingly due to the abundance of sea turtles found on the island. Soon after, the word “Dry” was added to the name to indicate the lack of fresh water. Pirates and adventure seekers ruled the islands until the U.S government took over and started building the fort. In 1861, the United States government completed Fort Jefferson on Garden Key, and remained in Union hands throughout the War Between the States. It later was used as a prison until abandoned in 1874. While a prison, the famous Dr. Mud did time here for his part in the Lincoln assassination. During the 1880s, the Navy established a base at the Tortugas; and it subsequently set up a refueling and radio station as well. During World War I, a seaplane base was established; but it was abandoned soon thereafter.
Now you’re here and wondering what to do. Take the next day and go exploring to all the surrounding islands via the kayaks. There are seven to choose from. Check with the rangers to see which ones can be walked on and which ones to avoid if it’s nesting season. The total land area of the islands is about 143 acres.
The islands that make up Dry Tortugas National Park include:
Loggerhead Key, with Dry Tortugas lighthouse (46 yards high)
Garden Key, with Fort Jefferson and the inactive Garden Key lighthouse (20 yards high)
Bush Key, formerly named Hog Island because of the hogs that were raised there to provide fresh meat for the prisoners at Fort Jefferson, just a few yards east of Garden Key. At times, Bush Key is connected to Garden Key by a sand bar. Access is regulated due to nesting birds.
Long Key, Pretty much a big sandbar
Hospital Key, so called because a hospital for the inmates of Fort Jefferson had been built there in the 1870s. The island was formerly called Middle Key or Sand Key.
Middle Key, about a mile east of Hospital key.
East Key, just east of Middle Key
Now you can see why this is a sea kayakers paradise, It’s almost all water!
To get you on your way you will need to make reservations with the Yankee Freedom for your ferry ride. Check their web site for all the nitty gritty details like maximum kayak length, camp stove regulations, and length of stay restrictions. Most important is to bring enough water. They aren’t called “Dry Tortugas” for nothing. There is no fresh water at all on the island! Pack a minimum of a gallon a day per person.
Go, get out, explore Florida!
Adventures in Florida: Kayaking, birding, and historical tours of the Florida Keys and
The Dry Tortugas. www.adventuresinflorida.com 407.924.3375
Yankee Freedom: Ferry service from Key West to the Dry Tortugas. 305.294.7009
Fort Jefferson and the Dry Tortugas National Park: by L. Wayne Landrum
NOAA chart 11434 - Florida Keys - Sombrero Key to Dry Tortugas