Sunday, 2 April 2023, Miami FL
Time for the last National Park on this trip: Dry Tortugas. Perhaps the most remote park in the lower-48 states, it lies 70 miles west of Key West, a barren collection of keys strategically located at the entrance to the Gulf of Mexico. Named for the sea turtles in the area (Tortugas) and the lack of fresh water sources (Dry), the Garden Key hosts one of the largest brick structures in the Western Hemisphere and one of the largest forts ever built.
To reach the park, you can take a seaplane or charter a private boat, but most people arrive via the Yankee Freedom, a park-licensed catamaran holding up to 160 people. It boards daily in Key West at 7:30 a.m. and returns to port around 5:30 p.m. When I made my reservation, the earliest available spot was two months away.
Once we left the harbor,
water surrounded us. As we headed west, the morning sun glistened off our wake.
To the north, occasional keys (such as the Marqueses Keys)
appeared on the northern horizon. The boat motored west at 30 knots, taking 2½ hours for the journey. Along the way, we saw dolphins and several flying fish.
On this fine spring day, the open water stayed calm, with only a 1-2' swell. The captain informed us of our good fortune: "That's very unusual for this time of year. Last week, we had one cruise with 6' waves. Half of the passengers got seasick."
Without wind and waves to stir things up, the water had 30' visibility. Traveling over the open sea, you would not normally notice that - but despite the watery reaches on all sides, we cruised through seas only 30' deep. Standing on the bow, watching the water race under the boat, I could see the sand and seagrass beneath us. Curious, I asked a crew member how deep the boat sat. "Being a catamaran, it floats on the supports on each side. It has a draft of 6-7'. When we're on plane, running at cruising speed, it only drafts 4'."
I took a short video while standing on the bow, watching the sea floor race by. (Unfortunately, that was made possible by polarized sunglasses. The cell phone video lacks polarizing, so the patterns did not show up.)
The captain provided narration en route to the park. "The Dry Tortugas may seem like a random, remote place to put a fort," he told us. "But it provided a convenient spot from which to control shipping lanes into the Gulf, a protected harbor for refuge if a storm blew in, and a base from which to fight pirates."
As we neared Garden Key at 10:30, the fort commanded our attention. Its red walls rose from the water like an apparition.
Nearby, Loggerhead Key (named for the sea turtles that lay eggs there) appeared as a white, sandy dash in the water, anchored by a lighthouse.
So now what? As the ship pulled up to the dock, we heard about our choices: A crew member would give a 30-minute intro to the fort at 11:00, followed by an hour-long guided tour; you could take your own self-guided tour; you could borrow snorkel equipment and loll about in the water. Lunch would be served on board from 11:00-1:00. The boat would pull out at 3:00 on the button - make your plans based on that!
I opted to start with the guided tours. Twenty passengers met at the designated spot to hear the story of Fort Jefferson.
The guide led us into the fort, pointing out features, telling us of its construction. "It took 16 million bricks to build this fort," he explained. "And every one had to be shipped here - there was nothing here to make bricks from."
He detailed the problems that occurred regularly. "Remember, this is the DRY Tortugas - no fresh water. Designers built plumbing to direct rainwater falling on the roof into cisterns underground to store it. But due to the key's geology, they had a LOT of settling, and cisterns developed cracks that let sea water in.
"To solve the water problems, they added a steam condenser to convert sea water. When the distilled water grew stagnant, mosquitos started breeding, bringing disease in. For the soldiers, they built barracks on this side, but they didn't have good ventilation. In the heat and humidity here, they were effectively giant pizza ovens for cooking soldiers."
He led us around the fort, going from the first floor up to the upper levels. In one corridor, he pointed to water dripping from the ceiling. "Now here you have the only place in the world where - in a man-made, above-ground structure - water is naturally creating stalactites and stalagmites."
In the rear of the fort, he pointed out a strange looking building that angled downward from back to front, with metal holders embedded in the bricks. "They stored cannonballs here. When they took a cannon ball out, the next one in line rolled into place. I call it the cannonball dispensary."
A wry smile now came to his face. "Now you may imagine that when they shot a cannonball, the cannon would send it up in an arc to get the greatest distance. But here, they had a better idea. They would super-heat the balls, then fire them horizontally. When the ball hit the water, the heat would instantly evaporate the water. The ball would 'bounce' off the steam, fly further, make another steam bounce, and 'skip' its way across the water. When it hit a ship, it would lodge in the ship, maybe start it burning, or maybe explode a powder magazine."
Back on solid ground, he showed us a refugee boat. Earlier this year, the government closed the park for a few days due to Cuban emigrees landing here. "This is the boat they used to sail from Cuba," the guide said. "My parents emigrated to the US legally before I was born, and I believe people should follow the rules - but to see what these refugees endured to get here, I can see how desperate they must be."
Not everyone wanted to be there, though. "During the Civil War, they used the fort as a prisoner-of-war camp. They sent deserters and traitors there. When the war ended, they sent the island its most famous prisoner: Dr. Samuel Mudd. He was convicted of helping with Lincoln's assassination by setting John Wilkes Booth's broken leg, letting him escape. Mudd claimed he was only treating Booth as any doctor would have, to no avail. He was sentenced to life on this remote isle.
"In 1867, a yellow fever epidemic hit the fort. Most people at the fort came down with it, and the fort's surgeon and his nurses died. Mudd stepped up, treating prisoners as well as the guards who treated him poorly. For his work, he received a presidential pardon in 1868. He never cleared his reputation, though. In fact, some people say his name resulted in the phrase, 'Your name is mud.'"
When someone asked about the biggest battle fought at the fort, the guide shook his head. "The guns here were never fired. In fact, the biggest battle never happened. In 1861, at the start of the Civil War, a Union force occupied the fort. The Confederacy sent ships to Garden Key to demand its surrender. As the ships sailed within range of the guns, the guns didn't fire. The rebel captain moved closer to the fort, but still drew no fire. Finally, he docked, wondering if the fort would succumb without a fight.
"The fort's commander Major Lewis Arnold calmly strolled out of the fort, meeting the rebel at the sally port. There he laid down the rules. 'You have a choice,' Major Arnold told the rebel captain. 'You can turn your ship around, sail back from where you came, and tell your people to stay away from us. Or you can refuse, in which case we will destroy your ship where she is moored, and we will sink any other ship coming within range of our guns. Your choice.'
"Shaken, the rebel sailor took the hint, sailed away, and the Confederates never approached the fort again, ceding control of Gulf shipping lanes to Union forces. He never knew that the fort had no ammunition on hand; their next supply ship was not due to arrive for several more days. With a spectacular bluff, Major Arnold had won a crucial 'battle' in the war."
Following the tour, I returned to the boat for the provided lunch.
Afterwards, I walked the trail around the moat, watching the people swim and snorkel in the warm waters.
The seawall around the moat did not quite make for a complete loop; one section had collapsed, making it an out-and-back stroll from each end.
For the rest of the short stay, I wandered about, taking photos. The park was truly remote - 98% of it is water (even more than Biscayne!). Beyond the lighthouse on Loggerhead Key, the other keys have no structures.
A few shipwrecks are scattered about, but you need a boat or kayak to reach them. Much of the park is designated a Marine Research Area, with no fishing or anchoring allowed.
NPS staff working here must enjoy solitude. A team of ten people holds down the fort (literally!), serving a two-week shift before cycling back to the mainland. A supply ship arrives twice a week, bringing whatever is needed. Otherwise, they must entertain themselves. The only other 'occupants' stay in a campground outside the fort, but no vendors share the space - no store, no restaurant, no movie theatres, nothing.
Oh, sorry - I meant campers and frigate birds. These birds, with wingspans of 7' - the largest wing area to body weight ratio of any bird - can soar for weeks in the wind. (They can even sleep while flying, with one brain hemisphere sleeping at a time.) The birds are 'kleptoparasites' - besides catching fish near the sea's surface, they steal food from other birds, harassing them until they drop their food. At first, I noticed a straggler or two,
but in moments the sky was filled with them.
I enjoyed the enforced leisure - no place to hurry off to, no demands on my time. Just let the peace and solitude permeate my soul. Eventually 3:00 rolled by, and I returned to the ship.
On the cruise back, I again spent time on the bow, the wind rushing through my hair. Again, a dolphin splashed beside us. At two points, I looked down to see large loggerhead turtles just below the surface, passing beneath the raised deck of the catamaran.
Back in Key West, I smiled as I saw a $20 bill lying near my car in the parking garage. That takes care of half the parking fee! For dinner, I debated between seafood or Thai food - but then I noticed that the Seven Fish restaurant offered Thai Curry Yellow Snapper. Perfect way to end a good day!
Monday, 3 April 2023, traveling
Ahh, Homeward Bound day. Wouldn't it be nice if we could snap our fingers and magically reappear at home?
Until such time as that becomes possible, I must simply endure the return. After re-organizing my gear for the flight home at the hostel, I faced the long drive back on the Overseas Highway. Luckily, I encountered no traffic tie-ups, and I got back to the mainland with time to spare. Enough time to take a short detour back to Biscayne NP to get passport stamps on scraps of paper (I could tape them into my recovered passport book when I got home), to take a short nature hike,
and to enjoy a quick peanut-butter-and-avocado sandwich for lunch.
Of course, I had to navigate one more stint on a Florida turnpike. (I discovered that Florida has multiple toll authorities for its turnpikes. Most of them accept the EZ-Pass I use in PA, but my transponder missed at least one toll, for which Avis then charged me $20. My other 15 charges totaled less than $10. One more reason to avoid Florida in the future.)
At the airport, I noticed one woman traveling with a small, hyperactive white dog. In the TSA line, it yipped at other passengers, and snapped at one man who leaned over to pet it. Definitely not a service dog candidate! But to defend the canine, I have to say that if I was a dog with a nice white fur coat, and my owner dyed my paws, tail, and ears pink, I would likely have an attitude too.
Unlike my two earlier flights this trip that landed 42 minutes early, this flight only landed 21 minutes early. American squandered that benefit for me by making my suitcase the last one (literally, THE very last bag) to reach the carousel. With all the travel I've done in the past year plus, I guess I was due!