Adventure To The Dry Tortugas

Okay, coffee at hand, I am ready to write about my trip to the Dry Tortugas. I have been going camping every Halloween for the past thirteen years at the Sawmill Campground, a gay camping resort here in Florida. I camp ‘primitive’, meaning I bring my own tent and ‘rough it’. Well, rough it as much as you can at a gay campground with 6 bars, a giant in-ground heated pool, electrical hook up and running water for tent sights. Ha-ha. But I have a blast there and go every year.

So sister (real sister, that is) is always bugging me to go. She loves camping. I always tell here no. I mean, I like the Sawmill because it is my alone time where I can let myself be me with lots of others doing the same. I can BRING her, I don’t think SHE would be uncomfortable with it, I would, without going into details as to why (I’ll leave that to your imagination).

So for years I’ve been telling her no. She has done a lot for me over the years, and I have been feeling really guilty about doing something for her. Then I stumbled upon the Dry Tortugas website while checking out our National Parks Website, and knew I just had to go camp there. AND its straight and touristy, perfect for sister to come along.

Not too many people are familiar with the Dry Tortugas. I sure wasn’t. It turns out to be the remotest US National Park. It is a little island, part of the Florida Keys, but unlike the main Keys, not connected by road due to its distance. You drive out to the last Key (Key West), and then either hop a ferry or a seaplane for the 70 mile trip out to the island. Not a normal ferry boat either, a Catamaran.

On this little island in the middle of nowhere, back in 1825-ish, our government built this huge ugly six-sided three story octagonal brick fort, the most bizarre thing I have ever seen. It takes up most of the island, with just a little strip of land in front of it. It was originally built to protect our Gulf of Mexico from invasion with cannons. It is surrounded by a moat, and has a walkway around the outside of the moat that is nearly three quarters of a mile long. Later it was turned into a prison, later still a quarantine station, and finally a national park. They never really finished building it, the thing took 16 million bricks to build, and it was so heavy it started sinking, so they actually left some of the second floor unfinished.

Sister immediately fell in love with the idea, of course, and we were really excited, but it was a TON of work too. Trust me, you go out there to camp, you have got your work cut out for you. For us it entailed loading all 400 pounds of our camping gear (most of the weight water and ice – no water out there at all and your bathroom is composting toilets), hauling it 420 miles to Key West, staying overnight to rest up for the second half of the trip, which is finding the ferry at 6 in the morning and loading our 400 pounds of gear on it, riding two and a half hours by ferry to the island, unloading our gear, and setting up our tent site.

I’ve been to Key West, since it has a huge gay presence there. When looking for a hotel I tried everything from Econolodge to Comfort Inn. They all wanted 200 bucks for our one night stay, so I decided to chance it and book a room at the La Te Da, a gay bed and breakfast popular for its bar and in a historic building as well. I got an upstairs ‘luxury’ room for 250, but it was right in the heart of action so I thought it was a good choice. Only one bed, but it was king size so we were all right with that.

So Sunday morning at 3 AM we are trying to get all our gear into my sisters little economy Kia. After quite a struggle we managed all right, and departed for Key West at 5 AM. Neither of us slept much as we were so excited about the trip.

We arrived in Key West around 3 PM and of course absolutely exhausted. Basically at that time we have both been up about 15 hours. We get our room and are told there is a T-dance starting in an hour at the bar. My sister is loving it, wanting to dance. We both ended up absolutely plastered because we are so tired too. I finally drag her up to the room around 9 PM, she is so bombed she is embarrassing me lol.

We go to bed. I wake up two hours later and she is gone!! Also, it seems we timed our vacation for this insane wind storm, and the wind is a howling around the hotel. I am kind of spooked and worried for her and I wait up for her and finally she returns hours later from partying downstairs!!

Here’s our room – two sets of french doors on second floor overlooking the pool downstairs:

We also had this whole area to ourselves, right off the room:

Sister snappin pics of the pool:

Having a drink before we go downstairs and get totally plastered:

The wind is really starting to pick up.  I tried to catch the fan palm leaves blowing in the wind:

So we are up all night. Can you believe? She hasn’t had ANY sleep and I have had 2 hours. We have a few more hours to sleep but neither of us can, we just lay there pretty much for a couple of hours and then start prepping for our trip out to the island. This entails bringing the car around, pulling out all the coolers and filling with ice from the hotel, loading it into the car, going the short distance to the dock, unloading the car, hauling the gear 800 feet to the boat, parking the car in the garage and paying the parking fee. I went to pay the fee and left my wallet in the luggage and had to have the crew haul it out for me to get it, much to their displeasure.

Yup. Quite the scramble.

 The catamaran awaits:

And so we are off.  I’m just drop dead exhausted by this time.  I got up midnite on Sunday to start packing, it is now 8 am Monday and I am hung over with two hours sleep.  To make matters worse, the wind is really whipping out there.  Thank God they feed us breakfast.  Some people need sick bags to puke in because this catamaran thing is REALLY bobbing on these waves being kicked up by the wind.  They tell the sick people to puke in their bags at the back of the boat where it is a little calmer.  Unfortunately this is also the smoking section.  I feel guilty and dont smoke …. much.

Waves getting bigger:

… and bigger:

I have no idea how these people stayed on deck – wave washed over them and I lost view of the completely for a minute:

Here is the smoking section where the sick people went cause it is ‘calmer’ lol:

Everyone is hanging on for dear life inside the cabin and outside as well.  We are both hungover and exhausted, but at least we never got sick.  Finally, as the island with its massive brick montrosity came into view, the waves started to calm a little.  Here is first view of the island:

… and closer …

arriving views from the boat:

We get off the boat and immediately grab these hand carts for our gear and haul it to the campsite about 300 feet away.  There is a group of about 5 men also camping and campsites are first come first serve.  We get this awsome campsite under this scraggly old tree, one of about two on the whole island.  We have a hard time  setting up, we are sooo exhausted and the wind is whipping and within the first half hour i walk into a tree limb and bong my head a good one.  Here is a pic of our campsite, you can see my blue tent and sisters red one – pretty crappy but amazingly the only one I have from a distance:

Here is one of the tree limbs around our campsite – it was cool, we were in a little scrabby tree shelter.  I bonged my head a good one on a similar limb:

After HOURS of struggle, we finally are all set up and STILL too excited to sleep.  I am amazed to find that the group of men that came camping did not have gear!!  Only sleeping bags!!  They told me tents are for pussys.  Huh.

So it is now 3 pm on monday (remember we start sunday at midnite), and here we are STILL going and wanting to explore, of course.  We checked out the beach, and the moat around the fort, and then we sat out after the sun went down and got drunk again lol.  Here are some pics of the beach and the moat walkway around the fort.  The beach looks nice and sugary – just to let you know, its not.  That is crushed corals, and it is a very large, course sand.  The coral here is amazing – you dont swim without beach shoes, and you dont swim period, you snorkle.

The beach area:

Here is a pic of our compost toilets – no sinks or anything – there is no running water on this island for campers, altho there is limited supply for national park staff that stay on the island in the fort:

The sites are amazing – the water is so blue you cant stop taking pictures of it even tho they all look the same lol.  We went around the moat on the moat wall walkway:

And on and on – there are fours sides of the fort on water with just the moat wall.

There is a ton more to tell and to show, but I’ve been cranking on this thing for about 4 or 5 hours now.  I guess I am going to do a part two.  We had a bit of an adventure that first night, and I havent even shown you pictures of ANYthing yet, really, but for now I say goodnite and leave you with a pic of sister and me, one of the rare pics you’ll ever see of me (I have an internet phobia lol).  Note my crappy sneakers, which for some reason ended up in my camping gear and thank God.  My hundred dollar flip flops broke shortly after arrival when I tripped over a tree root lol:

PART TWO:

So that first day after quite a struggle trying to raise our tents in a 20-25 mph wind (I think it was the longest it has ever taken me to set up a campsite – almost 4 hours!!), we checked out the beach and around the moat a little of the fort.  After as the sun went down we sat and had drinks.

The alchohol was finally getting us to a point where I wanted to try to get some sleep.  Also the wind, incredibly, has started kicking up and is now blowing about 35 -40 mph!!   It was crazy!  We tried to sit out but it was getting kindof hard to do so sister said she was going to try to sleep and crawled into her little pup tent and I went into my gigantic tent with my campchair and sat down to have a drink then I was going to hit the sack as well.

Well not so.  Everytime I sat down with a drink I would hear my sister calling me that the wind was taking her tent stakes out of the ground.  So funny.  I would stumble out of my tent and walk around to her tent with a sledgehammer and she would be holding it up from inside and I would pound in another stake or two to hold her tent down.  This went on for the next 3  hours.  Finally the thing collapsed yet again and i told her to come into my tent for the night and we would fix hers in the morning.  my tent can hold a table and chairs and two queen size air mattresses, so there was plenty of room.  So she stumbled out of her collapsed tent and battled her way thru the wind over to mine and stayed the night.  We fell asleep around 1 AM Tuesday, after being up almost 48 hours.

It was so incredibly weird on that island in the middle of night stumbling around in the howling wind to go over to the composting toilets or to stake down her tent in the absolute pitch black.  I brought with me SEVEN flashlites, much to my sisters amusement, but i was glad i did cause I used them alot.  On one of my excursions out to stake down her tent before she gave up, I was just amazed to find that the whole place was acrawling with sand crabs, tons of them scrabbling around in the dark.  I was like – LOOK!!  LOOK!! – and made such a comotion that the other campers (you know the ‘tents are for pussies’ guys) came over to see. 

Between the five of them they had one little penlite.  Again I was amazed at their lack of preparation.  They took one look at those sand crabs and next thing I know they all have their sleeping bags up on the picnic tables.  Pussies.  hahaha

I snagged some pics of the little things while sister held a flashlite on them:

Yup, pretty crazy.  When we finally fell asleep we slepts like babes while the wind whipped around us.  That old tent of mine actually made it thru all that wind with no problem.  My sisters little pup tent was pulverized lol.  In the morning the wind had died back down and sister got out the sterno stove for coffee which we actually still had to use in the tent because of the wind.  We found some old (literally – like almost 200 years old) bricks from the fort lying around and put the stove on that.  I just brought along some crappy instant coffee, but that first cup was just heavenly.  I was a mess.  Here my attempt of a pic of my coffee before the first cup:

I was much steadier after the first cup, which i used up almost the whole box on:

Sisters pulverized tent:

Even tho the wind had calmed down literally by half, you can still see how strong it is the next morning.  Here the cap to my tent, which is actually tied to the tree behind it,  is plastered against the tent by the wind.  Crazy that this thing stayed in place during the night:

Those other campers spent the night on the picnic tables.  During the night right before sister moved to my tent one of them came running over in his underwear saying his brother had cut his leg open on something and did we have any first aid.  Fortunately we had two kits.  He needed stitches, and they left the next morning on the boat to Key West.  When I got up I glanced over to their tentsite and was amused to see one of the guys faces bright red from windburn.  hahaha.  Yup, next time I think they’ll come prepared!

That next day, Tuesday, we went snorkling at the beach, and explored the island and especially the fort.  It was HUGE, with two floors and a terra-roof to explore.  We set our camping chairs out on the beach and watched the sun go down and billions of stars come out.  With all this light pollution everywhere, you dont realize just how many stars there are out there.  We sat in the dark with our drinks and our necks craned up just gazing while the sand crabs scrabbled around us.  Sister saw a shooting star.  We went to bed around 10 pm, and again slept like babes, this time for a full 8 hours.

Wednesday we awoke at 7 AM.  This day was our return day.  We had to have everything packed up and on the dock to load on the boat at 10 AM, at which time we were allowed another 5 and a half hours on the island before the boat left for Key West.  We had our coffee, packed everything up, loaded it on the boat, and explored some more.  About an hour before needing to be back on the boat for Key West, we found, much to our displeasure, that all the good coral sights were on the OTHER side of the fort!!  So the coral pics I post later are taken from standing on the moat looking into the water.  I got enough for you to see that it is some pretty cool stuff.  Next time I know where to go with an underwater camera!  Boo!  We were mad lol.

Today I leave you with pics of what i thought were Blue Heron, altho my internet search seems to bring up a similar, but different bird.  So I think these are Heron, but a different variety.  If you know what they are, post a comment to let me know.

I also leave you with pics of what I call Bird Island, but is actually called Bush Key.  It was closed to visitors.  It is a bird nesting area and billions of birds as you can see. 

By the way, if you see tourists in my pics its because the boat brings two types of visitors to the island.  Day trippers, who stay for 5 hours, and campers, who stay overnite or several nites.  The island was pretty busy with day trippers during those five hours.  Then, after the boat leaves, more day trippers arrive by sea plane and THEY stay a couple hours too.  After about 5 PM, they all clear out, and we have the island to ourselves.  Other people would come out by private boat, anchor off shore and take dinghy’s in to explore the island.  Some of them would then return to their boats and spend the night anchored offshore.

So here are my Heron (?) pics:

And we have Bush Key, which I call bird Island.  These pictures were taken from on top of the fort on the roof, and also from the second floor of the fort thru a window.  I’ve included both sunrise and during the day pictures.  As you can see, at sunrise the amount of birds on this little Key island is amazing.  Its closed 6 months of the year as a nesting ground, and after that i understand a lot of it disappears under water the other six months of the year:

Ok, so there’s Part Two.  Sorry about quality on my pics.  Remember, the wind is a whipping around me on a lot of them.  I have a phobia of heights, and standing on top of the fort with that wind pushing at you trying to take pics was definately a challenge.

Thats pretty much the story – have decided not to do a Part Three, but to create another site for the rest of my pics since there are so many.  They are amazing.  You can see the rest of my pics (pictures without words!!) by clicking here or going to http://islandpicsapril.wordpress.com

By the way, the shot from the air of the island I borrowed from Bunny, a blogger who also visited the island.  You can check out her blog here.

About respectfullywritten

I live in Central Florida and love it!!
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2 Responses to Adventure To The Dry Tortugas

  1. April says:

    Thanks so much for sharing! We are planning on camping 3 nights in June 2014 ( we are Floridians so we know what we are in for heat/sun/weather etc! Ha!! ) and I loved all the details about the camping! We spend a lot of time in the Keys and KW with our boat so hopping on the ferry and camping out has been a bucket list item for us. Glad you and sis had a great time. We are going with our 15 and 19 year old kids so we definitely will have some manual labor help for set up. Looking forward to a cocktail as we walk the moat at sunset!! April

    • you will love it ! It is so nice – be prepared for peaceful! and bring swim shoes! The island is all coral – if you want to swim, you need swim shoes to protect your feet. Be prepared to be awestruck and wait till you see the stars at night!

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