Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Fort Jefferson-Camping

Above is the main entrance to Fort Jefferson which covers 11 acres of Garden Key in the Dry Tortugas. Below is a National Park Service billboard discussing how not to step on coral, but it shows Garden Key quite nicely from the air:Of the remaining five acres of Garden Key outside the Civil War era fort, a small sliver of trees and sand is given over to a primitive campground (in the bottom right hand corner of the photo). Which was where I spent the end of last week in the company of five women and one other man. After the two ferries landed at the docks on the south side of the fort we had to get all our piles of crap to the campground and find places to set up the tents and distribute the supplies and all that stuff. With five women in the party it's safe to say we weren't going to starve, or run out of clean underwear, but all that comfort weighed a ton for me, the pack mule:The sand was deep in places and there was lots to do, so Kathy took a nap after she carefully unfolded her camp chair:Eventually the packages were opened and strewn about a bit so Kathy located her tent which she put up in the bushes, and promptly sacked out one more time:My wife and I were having our own issues with a loaner tent from Carol the experienced camper in the group. We struggled with bits of string and stakes, and shoved poles hither and yon and eventually, sweating like coal miners, we had what soon came to be known in our camp circles as "The Taj Mahal." It was quite the luxury item, and I was particularly pleased with the location, in the shade of a palm, but open to the strong healthy south east winds. Those and a glass of iced rum were all the refreshment I needed:Behind us we had a glimpse of the turquoise waters off the swimming beach to the west of the fort, while right next to us, just beyond the moat, the walls of the fort rose above us like a red brick cliff:It was a most satisfying spot, and it had to be, as this was finally the beach vacation my wife has been asking for every since we got married nearly 15 years ago. We always end up taking wild driving or sailing vacations running all over the place but what she wants, for one solitary vacation is a chance to to sit by the beach and do nothing much. So in this instance I wracked my brains figuring out how to make it comfortable and I came up with a brilliant idea, tested in this case by Dolly who also thought it was pretty sharp:What you see here is a queen sized Aerobed inflated by a built-in 110 volt air pump that we normally use as a guest bed in our tiny little home. In this case, not having to carry stuff very far, but far enough through the sand, I packed a power pack contraption, basically a battery with built in jumper cables and a 110 volt inverter which I used to silently and efficiently inflate the bed. I have to say I slept like a log both nights. My wife didn't do quite so well, blaming her arthritis for a couple of somewhat fractured nights of near lseeping. She kept giving me weather reports in the morning, telling me I had snored through yet another spectacular thunderstorm in the night. I thought the Aerobed was perfect but what do I know? Before I was done gloating at my own brilliance over the inflated bed snug in my super-sized tent, Kathy, across the campground, had woken up and sprung into action:
And then there was swimming to do, in the swimming area right next to the main channel into the harbor. The water was measured by a friendly ranger who claimed it was 80 degrees (27c) but it felt a lot colder than that:Other than unpacking the camping gear and setting up the tents, swimming was a major activity. The other preferred camp sites, among the eleven sites on the island, were deeper in the bushes for more shade:Personally I found this to be stiflingly hot. The alternative was to be in the breeze but with less greenery:In the background you can see the four composting Clivus toilets which are open for campers only when the ferries aren't at the docks. When the ferries are at the docks, campers can use their fresh water showers and the sea water toilets on board the boats. Sometimes they will also take away extra trash if you treat the crew nicely. They aren't joking when they tell you this is primitive camping, because the rangers provide no facilities at all. Everything you use you bring, including the guacamole:What facilities there are have undergone some modernization. The old salt water toilets on the dock are gone, replaced by changing rooms, but there is still the weather radio supplemented now by a $1.25 a minute satellite pay phone (pay by credit card) which Cathy reported worked perfectly when she called Key West on it. The rangers also have a satellite phone in case of emergency and there is a helipad next to the docks, which I suppose could be used in an emergency. But the day to day stuff is all up to the campers, bring your own water and pack absolutely everything out. Or in, if you are Carol:The fee to camp is $3 per person per night and supposedly there is a two week maximum per year, limited to one week at a time though I've never put this to the test. You pay the fee by cash or check and drop payment in the slot as Robert demonstrates, pretty much like any other park in the system:Then you get down to the serious business of camping, which is eating, and your appetite is whetted by the salt air and all that activity. My wife was cook for the first dinner, spicy chicken sausages and pesto pasta salad. The pasta was prepared at home the sausages weren't:And so we enjoyed the first evening meal of the trip, eating outdoors in inadequate light, scrunched up around the picnic table on hard benches. And loving every minute of it:
As the sun made it's closing argument on the day:And thus it was, despite the fact I was in this incredible place, pretty soon I was snoring my head off, full of sausage bread and wine and lots of bracing fresh air.