I can’t sleep.
On a soft-sand beach, I’m wrapped in my unhung hammock as if it’s a blanket, since the U.S, National Park Service doesn’t allow them in trees. The ocean current swooshes onto the shore and the clear night sky reveals four planets in alignment.
Earlier today, we arrived at Garden Key, the main island in the Dry Tortugas, an American national park just 70 miles from Key West, Florida (about two hours on the main ferry). I watched as hordes of day-trip passengers poured out of the Yankee Freedom II ferry and into Fort Jefferson like ants with no direction. Opposite the fortress, a seaplane landed in the heavenly blue abyss.
Staking a Camp Site on Dry Tortugas
While the other campers were loading belongings into wooden push carts, AJ, my kayak go-to and new-found friend, went sprinting across the island without a word, leaving me staring at the impressive three-story fort, the largest masonry structure in the United States.
As I loaded our gear, which consisted of a cooler, life jackets, waterproof bags and ready-to-eat items, AJ reappeared with a huge grin on his face.
“We got the best camping spot! Tons of shade!” He used to work on the Fast Cat, a second Dry Tortugas ferry that ceased operations, and had been to the island at least 100 times, but only for the hour allotted to crew. He had always wanted to camp and I started to understand how much this meant to him. This time, instead of saying “thank you” when everyone else left the ferry, he’d finally have a chance to stay.
After settling into the campsite, AJ wandered off to make friends with the remaining campers and I waved goodbye to the ferry as the hundred or so day-trippers headed back to the mainland. The few of us left (and the park rangers) suddenly owned the island. I heard the little girl in the camp next to us asking her father questions.
“Daddy, where are we now?”
“You’re still in Florida, honey,” he replied. I understood her confusion. It didn’t feel like Florida.
Nightfall and Sleeplessness
It’s getting chilly on the island and I could kick myself for not bringing a blanket. I can’t sleep. All I can think about is our kayak trip tomorrow. A month earlier, I hadn’t heard of the Dry Tortugas and its shroud of mystery. Reading up on the park, I soon learned of this empty ghost town where an unfinished Civil War–era fort still stands, having never seen a single battle. The surrounding islands offered explorers nothing but sand, scorching sun and a graveyard of sunken ships that wreckers have tried to salvage, but to me they were a warm and inviting playground, especially the tiny nearby island of Loggerhead Key, which is home to a turtle nesting area (about 250 nests per summer) and a massive protected reef called Little Africa (it’s shaped like the continent), I’d made up my mind then to make the crossing.
“The only way you can reach Loggerhead is by private boat. Or you can kayak,” the staff of the Yankee Freedom II informed me. So I put a Craigslist posting up asking for a kayak rental and received several responses, all saying “it’s treacherous” and “people have died.” Then I talked to AJ.
“Well, I don’t want to scare you but the idea you are proposing can be dangerous if you are inexperienced. I’ve wanted to do that trip for a while but I haven’t found anyone that’s interested,” AJ said on the phone. He had spent a lot of time kayaking in Alaska and was currently in the process of starting his own business, Kayak Kings of Key West.
“But is it possible?” I asked.
“It’s very possible,” he said. That was all I needed to hear.
Three weeks later, after dozens of calls and emails, here we are. How could AJ possibly be sleeping right now? I am way too excited. I start contemplating going into the fort. Even though it’s forbidden at night, I can’t resist the urge.I climb the winding staircase up the lighthouse tower – it smells of musk and old paint – to the third tier of the fort. As I walk along this ledge of history, I wonder what it was like to live here during a storm and to look out as lightning sparked up the night sky.
The grassy courtyard beneath me is eerie from the glow of the moonlight and the absolute silence. The park benches look lonely and suddenly I feel a chill run up my spine. My breathing becomes heavy and my hands begin to tingle. I remain calm and, after a minute, the sensation fades away.
An Island Abandoned
The sounds of ocean waves and seaplane propellers pry my eyes open. The first thing I see is a graceful sunrise and miles of blue staring back at me. After breakfast, we check in with the ranger who informs us that we have to return by sundown. AJ is overly prepared with more safety equipment than the park service requires and has already done a trial run around Key West in 25-knot winds. We load the gear and set off on our quest.
Loggerhead’s 150-foot lighthouse looms in the distance like New York did the first time I arrived. Those massive buildings had called to me that it was going to be tough, but I could do it. The journey to Loggerhead is three miles across an open stretch of changing currents that have caused around 250 ships to sink. Luckily, conditions couldn’t be more perfect for our trip: just a slight wind and beautiful sunny skies, but in the back of my mind I can still remember the warnings I’ve received. AJ is incredibly patient and gives me tips and guidance. As we reach the halfway point and the lighthouse is directly in front of us, kayaking becomes more natural to me and my concerns begin to melt away.
The kayak slides through the sand bar and onto the beach, and I cannot believe what I see before me: the fort is barely visible and the coral reefs create endless and harmonious layers of blue that flow together like a marble swirl of cerulean and aquamarine. To the left is a small dock for the private boats. The entire rest of the island – except for the beach – is covered in a thick brush. The only way to reach the other side is along the narrow path that winds around the lighthouse and keeper’s quarters.
“Hello?” AJ calls. “Is anyone here?”
There is no answer. Do we have this island to ourselves?
“This is awesome!” AJ shouts and takes off toward Little Africa like a kid in a candy store. Neither of us can get the enormous grins off our faces. How, in this day and age, can someone frolic around an abandoned island, unobserved? I wonder what was going through the mind of Ponce de Leon when he found the Dry Tortugas, and I suddenly want a flag to stake our claim.
Exploring a Dream
We hang everything up on some driftwood, put our snorkel gear on and enter the water around Little Africa. It’s stunning: the purple reef fans are vibrant, the sunlight glitters on the coral beneath the surface, and there are fish everywhere. AJ points out an enormous hogfish and I try to get his attention when a barracuda sails past us. I spot several blue tang and many seem to pose for the camera. I’m in a trance-like state as dozens of tiny fish are dancing to an ocean beat that I can almost hear in my mind. There are several areas of the reef to explore and nearby – a mile off the west coast – is the Windjammer shipwreck, still intact.
We take a break for a bite and a walk around the beach. We soon discover that we are not alone. Two volunteers have just arrived to tend to the beach and lighthouse. They are an older couple and are the first to stay on the island in the last nine months.
“Should we try to make it out to the wreck?” AJ asks. I’m interested, but we worry about getting back in time. Instead, we opt to kayak around the island. As we pass the southwestern point, there is large sand wall blocking our view, and it adds to the suspense of what is on the other side. We turn the corner and just stop paddling.
“Wow,” is all I can say. From this angle, we can see the full scale of Little Africa and the entire length of the island. It seems artificial, and certainly doesn’t look like any other part of Florida.
Our final stop before heading back is the eastern tip, a narrow stretch of sand a few feet wide that has been created by the varying currents. Each side of the strip is a different shade of blue, and it points to a sand bar that must be a mile long. We stare out at the open ocean, and I have such a feeling of accomplishment. I feel content with this paradise around me, and am completely “blissed out.” I hope the ferry never drops visitors off at this island. I appreciate it so much more knowing how far I had come to make this happen.
Letting It All Sink In
A large bull shark swims next to our kayak as if to say it’s time to go and we say our goodbyes to Loggerhead. The kayak trip back is so much easier than on the way there, even though my energy is fading with the sunset. When we arrive on Garden Key, there are more sailboats anchored off the shore and two women from one boat are in awe of our adventure.
“We have to take a photo of you. That is really incredible,” they insist. It starts to sink in that what we just did was really incredible. Not because it was some outrageous distance, but because we had made a dream happen. We had the freedom to do it, all we needed was the dream.
As I board the ferry to return to Key West, I wish I could be one of the campers waving goodbye again from the island. I want more time here.
Dry Tortugas Tips:
• Reserve camping months in advance. Ferry reservations can be canceled up to 48 hours before your stay.
• The camping rate does not include a $3-per-person, per-night fee that must be paid in cash upon arrival. The gift shop does take credit cards, but there isn’t much in the way of supplies; it’s mostly just books.
• Don’t bother staying just one night. To truly enjoy the island and relax, you need at least two. I recommend taking your time and staying all three nights.
• Call the park service to find out what you can bring and do; the rules change frequently. Fires are not permitted, nor are any fire starters (only charcoal briquettes).
• If you are bringing a kayak, tell the Yankee Freedom II when booking. They charge an extra $20. If you don’t have a kayak, I highly suggest contacting AJ at Kayak Kings of Key West.
• Bring headlamps, bug spray, tons of water and put all of your food in sealed containers. A telescope or stargazing map would come in handy, as well as a waterproof camera. Some people bring Frisbees, fishing poles, bocce balls, playing cards, and disk golf to pass the time.
• There are no showers on the island, but the new compost outhouses are available for camper use.
• Contact the park service for more information about volunteering – they need you!