Trip Report - Dry Tortugas National Park

Along the Moat Wall (Matt Pritchard) More photos below.

By Jody Pritchard

Even the famed roosters of Key West sounded hung over that Sunday morning. It had only been a few hours since the last of the Spring Breakers had passed out, and we were waiting dockside to board a catamaran by the name of “Fastcat” with our camping gear in tow. I was feeling anything but fast myself and the busted-down rooster cries were an aching reminder of the previous night’s sunset booze cruise.

Many months prior to this day, my friend Sandi invited me to be in her destination wedding. Florida is not a place many Californians travel to for the hell of it. If we want warm beaches and a tropical getaway, we book non-stop flights to Hawaii or Mexico. If we’re willing to connect four flights from two different airlines, we’re either A) going somewhere they don’t fly the American flag, or B) planning to see someone who means the world to us. Matt and I both knew this could be our first and last time in the Keys and we wanted to seize the long weekend for all it was worth. I packed a bridesmaid dress, a curling iron, and a Therm-A-Rest. In addition to attending a wedding that would have made Martha Stewart jealous, we were going to bag a night on our own “private” key in Dry Tortugas National Park.

Judging from the number of green faces bolting to the back of the boat during our two hour ride, I think it’s safe to say we were all happy to see the outline of Fort Jefferson and leave the choppy, open water behind. Garden Key is planted near the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico and once served as a strategic military post to protect the Mississippi River trade routes. Fort Jefferson is a pre-Civil War era fort; a brick monolith that comprises 80% of the island complete with a real moat. During our campers’ orientation with Susan, the Ironman trainee come park volunteer, we learned all about the island’s history, how to have a low-impact stay, and what to do if unexpected company arrived in the middle of the night…as in a boatload of Cubans.

Susan went on to explain that nearly 1000 Cuban citizens make the risky 90 mile trip across the Florida Channel to land on this particular U.S. island each year. Their small boats, called “Chugs,” are crafted in secret using found materials and use low power engines that make a “chug, chug, chug” noise – hence the name. Current US policy gives Cubans rights that other immigrants are denied. If they are intercepted in water, they are sent back like folks from other countries. But, if they make it to land, they get to stay. Matt and I wandered over later in the day to check out a row of beached Chugs left behind by recent arrivals. It was a humbling moment. Each boat represented a life changing story for a group of people willing to die for a piece of our everyday American life. We quietly admired the ingenuity employed to build them and I imagined the determination these people must have had to brave the journey. It was a startling reminder of how much I take my extra ordinary life for granted.

If we were superheroes, being prepared would be our special power and checklists would be our weapon of choice.

The day-trippers returned to their boats around 2pm, and we shared the entire island with eight or so other sunburned campers and a few park volunteers. Life felt pretty far from ordinary. White sandy beaches were ours to enjoy and Matt managed to convince me that swimming in open water was not nearly as scary as I thought it was. In fact, it was downright enjoyable. We dried off, took the twenty minute walk around the moat wall and decided to check out the fort. Along the self guided tour we noticed the strong resemblance it has to Fort Point in San Francisco, especially the arching, brick corridors. Feeding our brains was hard work and we promptly spent the rest of the day together doing absolutely nothing. When we got around to setting up camp, we learned a few important lessons.

Matt and I are known in our circle of friends and family for our superior planning skills. If we were superheroes, being prepared would be our special power and checklists would be our weapon of choice. However, I’m starting to think that overnight trips involving chartered boats are our kryptonite. The stove was left on the dock for the Channel Islands adventure and our tent pole was conveniently left in our apartment’s gear closet for this trip. After spending a few minutes pondering “What would MacGyver do?” we fashioned a few stuff sacks around the tripod and discovered a new way to put up the tent. We also discovered that shopping for food while drunk the night before is a bad idea. At least we brought enough water. Surviving on hotdogs and off-brand energy bars really wasn’t so awful. Especially since we only paid $6 for our beachside campsite with an uninterrupted view of the Gulf of Mexico.

The following morning I took a walk around the island and found a quiet beach near the chugs facing east. It was nesting season and neighboring Bush Key was filled with Sooty Terns. Their calls carried across the short channel and their numbers blotted the light with thousands of inky squiggles. I closed my eyes, but the light’s intensity was no match for my eyelids. I could still see the warm colors of the morning moving in thick swirls – like gold stirred with a spoon. I planted my feet in the sand, calmed my breath and raised my arms to salute the sun. I’ve only been practicing yoga for a few months and this was the first time I tried it outside. It turned out to be the perfect way to say hello to a beautiful morning and good-bye to this amazing area.

Connecting with a place during an overnight camping trip is a challenge weekend-warriors are constantly facing. Turns out, our little mistakes, new experiences, and quiet moments helped make our memories of the Dry Tortugas last well past the trip home.

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