Camping at Fort Jefferson | 10 insider tips no one tells you

Right there on its own website, the National Park Service warns you: Camping at Fort Jefferson National Park in the Dry Tortugas is “primitive camping.”

I’m pretty sure no one takes that too seriously. These are the days of “glamping,” where camping comes in a huge recreational vehicle with a king-size bed and air conditioning or a tent the size of Texas and wifi. How primitive could it be?

Fort Jefferson is a pack-in-pack-out camp ground. Fewer than a dozen small sites cluster among the scrub trees just outside the entrance to the fort and a few steps from the Atlantic Ocean. What you need, you bring. What you bring, you take out. Food. Water. Gear. There’s no corner store, no takeout delivery — and most assuredly, no cell service or wifi.

And, yet. This is one of the most sought-after, most soul-soothing experiences on the planet.

Forty years ago, my husband, Ed and I camped on the then-desolate Outer Banks of North Carolina for our honeymoon. Over the following four decades, I traded camping gear for resort hotels and he added to his gear with Scout trips to Philmont and the Boundary Waters. When we moved to Key West in 2012, we brought all that gear with us. As our 40th anniversary approached we decided, what the heck, we’ll do one last celebratory hurrah with a camping trip to Fort Jefferson.

We figured we’d ditch the gear after the trip. That was before. We will return. Soon. Because despite the 20-30 mph winds for four days and three nights, despite a gale force storm with pounding rain that threatened to blow away our tent (and did destroy the neighbors’), camping alongside that massive fort, under the stars in the silence is magical.

The national park’s website has the details you’ll need, right down to a darn-near perfect packing checklist. No need to repeat them. But, there are a handful of observations and suggestions we’d offer to round out that checklist.

  • Bring a solar charger: If you’re a Kindle junkie, which we are, then over four days you’re going to need to power-up that book. Ditto your cell phones that you’re using for cameras.
  • You can leave the toilet paper rolls at home: The park service calls them compost toilets. I call them outhouses-with-flare. In other words, they’ve got a “real seat”  and rolls of paper. You can save space by not bringing your own. Bring along those “emergency” pee bottles, too, because walking through the hermit crabs in the dead of night to the outhouse ain’t on anyone’s list of fun things to do. And, there are actual laws about public urination, even if it is dark and is right outside your tent door.
  • Water: They tell you at least one gallon per day per person. Do not underestimate that advice and think you can cheat. I’d recommend two gallons per day per person, especially if you intend to stay decently hydrated. And, forget bringing along all those gallon jugs. Get the big 7.5 gallon camping versions. Water doesn’t count in your total 60-ish pound per person gear limit. And the bigger containers are easier to pack and carry.
  • Kids: Got ’em. Love ’em. Not sure if this kind of camping is going to make kids happy. You know your kids, so consider: There really, really, really isn’t anything to “do.” There are only so many times you can wander around the fort looking for the crocodile and admiring the birds. Water sports are snorkeling and swimming; kayaking if you bring your own. And, except for the summer months when it’s hotter than blue blazes on the island and humid like wet wool, the water can be a bit brisk. In the winter months, it’s downright cold. Bring along the iPad and the video games — and the solar charger.
  • Tip the ferry folks: No kidding, these guys work hard to help you load and unload that gear. And, you’ll love that you can use their warm-water showers on the back of the ferry each day. No soap or shampoo, of course, but a good rinse can make your day
  • Staying clean: I’ll admit the only part of primitive camping I don’t like is no showers. So, I decided to take along a box of those baby wipes. Then, it occurred to me: Someone must have invented a bath towel size one of these wipes by now. Sure enough, Googled that puppy and there they were. One does a big guy; two is heavenly, and I even used one to scrub my hair after a salt water adventure. I cannot recommend these strongly enough: Epic Wipes.
  • When to go: Chances are you’ll need to make reservations months in advance. There are only 10 campsites and they are in demand year-round. But, if I were picking the perfect months, I’d go for April, May and maybe June, and late October and November. The water will be warm enough to enjoy paddling around and the days and evenings will be cool enough that you won’t think about trading your first born for air conditioning. Note though that hurricanes can linger in October and November. Just saying.
  • Bring a shade something-something: If you’re not among the four lucky campers who grab one of the campsites in the trees, you’re likely to be right out there in the open. So, if you’ve got one and you’ve got the space, pack one of those shade things.
  • Double — triple — stake your tent: I’m serious. The wind is constant and then there are the big winds and gusts. You’re pounding stakes into sand and coral but, believe me, you’ll be glad you did.
  • Pack yours clothes, then unpack half of them: You will not need them — and it will give you room to pack a couple of extra towels. Towels won’t dry out there, not even the microfiber ones. Extras come in handy.
  • Bonus tip: Take instant coffee (Starbucks makes a great one). You’ll never, ever heat water to a boil so making “real” coffee isn’t going to happen. But you can get it warm enough to make a decent cup of joe for the morning and evening. You can only use Sterno and self-lighting charcoal. No gas allowed.
  • And, plan to return. Like I said, it’s magical.

Linda Grist Cunningham is owner and editor of KeyWestWatch Media, which builds websites and manages social media for small businesses. She and her husband moved to Key West in 2012. Ed owns Tree Priorities and is a park ranger at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park in Key West.




Our distaste for 60,000 Central American children makes us ugly Americans

No one yelled “go back where you came from.” No one made political speeches. There were no hateful protests in the hot sun. No one even grumbled.

Instead, we slipped aside to make room for them for the three-hour trip back to Key West from the Dry Tortugas. Clean clothes, food, water, a promise of shelter and safety when we docked. Their three rickety rowboats, frighteningly small, seaworthy only in the most desperate imagination, passed slowly to our left.
Bienvenida. Welcome to the United States.

For many of us aboard the Yankee Freedom II ferry that day, bienvenida tested the limits of our Spanish. We could smile. Smiles have no geo-political boundaries.

Two dozen Cuban men and women, 20- and 30-somethings all, made it 114 miles and went “dry feet” on the island sand at Fort Jefferson just steps from our picnic tables. They’d spend a few hours with the U.S. immigration folks once we docked in Key West, then disperse to a new life, perhaps with old friends and family. The only question asked: Dry feet?

There is a disconnect between our tolerant, y’all-come Cuban immigration policies and our inexplicable distaste for immigrant children from Central America.

The ferry captain and crew take these pickups in stride. “Happens pretty regularly,” he told me that day a couple years ago. “The tortugas are a lot closer than making it all the way to Key West or the mainland.” The rest of us on the ferry that day? We’ll admit to some “watching history happen” thinking, whispering about the heroism and, of course, smiling.

The United States, and particularly Florida, has welcomed Cuban refugees since the early 1960s. U.S. policy is straightforward: If you make it to dry land in a U.S. territory, you are recognized as a legal refugee and you’re on your way to citizenship. Between 8,000-10,000 undocumented Cuban refugees make their ways to the United States annually. That’s in addition to the 20,000 Cubans who enter the country legally each year as part of a Cuba-U.S. agreement brokered in 1994 between then-President Bill Clinton and Fidel Castro.

Welcome to the United States. Happy to open our arms — and our government funding — to Cubans.

I’ve thought a lot about that day in the Dry Tortugas as I’ve watched the pushback to the border crossings of almost 60,000 frightened children from Central America. Do we hate other people’s kids that much? Doubtful. This is political theater ginned up in back rooms to capitalize on a child’s misery to discredit Barack Obama’s presidency. We should be ashamed of using children as political pawns.

There are few differences between the “dry feet” Cubans and these children. They flee their homes in politically oppressed countries that offer little hope for futures of economic, social or governmental stability. They come to the United States with little more in their backpacks than hope and almost all come to join families already here. Once past the complex legal and governmental maze, these children, like their Cuban counterparts, are settled with families and friends. With such similarity, why should we not be welcoming these children?

The Arizona Republic in Phoenix has covered the children’s immigration extensively and dispassionately. The newspaper’s on-site reporting weaves together the plight of these children and the complexity of immigration policy, providing the context in which to begin to understand. Start here at AZCentral with a simple “everything you need to know about the immigrant pipeline.”

Then, keep reading. The ignorance of the pushback is staggering. Protestors, including elected legislators, conflate immigration policy battles with humanitarian aid and comfort. They screech “turn ‘em back at the border” without a nod to existing law prohibiting just such a thing. They fail to understand that since 1994, immigrant children from non-contiguous countries must go through the court system before being returned.

The litany is long; the politics bitterly divisive.

Let us first take care of the children. Grant them safekeeping. Do for them what we would want for our own children. Let us model for El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala a country in which children come before politics, where food, water, shelter and due process take precedence over ideological battles. Let us say “bienvenida.”

Let those battles be waged, if waged they must be, among adults when the children are out of the room.

Pin It on Pinterest