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Wednesday, Dec 17, 2014
Travel and Beaches

At Fort Jefferson, time is on your side

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Published:   |   Updated: April 22, 2013 at 01:35 PM

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DRY TORTUGAS It's peaceful in the killing rooms.

They were designed to be killing rooms, anyway — 2,000 or so arches forming six soaring brick walls encircling nearly all the 22 acres of land that make up the small island known as Garden Key.

But the design and the ultimate uses of this place, historic Fort Jefferson, never did really match.

The brick arches were built to withstand the smoking fury of giant cannons, some of which could blast shells heavy as refrigerators a distance of up to three miles. Today, emptied of the guns and slowly crumbling, the bricks instead serve to frame a panorama of turquoise sea.

To lounge in shadow inside one of these arched rooms, with the Gulf of Mexico 30 feet straight below, gazing toward scenic Loggerhead lighthouse in the distance, hearing no sound but a wind off the sea, is reason enough to visit this isolated spot.

And to achieve such a special moment of peace, or to get the most from any visit to Fort Jefferson, it's best to stay a little while. Most people make a day trip of it as part of their Key West vacation, traveling five hours roundtrip by ferry with as many as 150 others for just four hours on the island.

This is certainly fun. You can whip through the fort tour, buy a T-shirt, walk the breathtaking moat wall, even squeeze in a quick snorkel. Still, spend a few nights camping here and you'll see what no one else does.

A threatened American crocodile, for example, 8 feet long, scooting slowly backward into his underwater hidey hole after being spotted by a couple strolling at dusk.

Or the round-the-clock springtime roar of nearly 100,000 sooty terns in their only significant U.S. breeding grounds.

Plus the classic Gulf sunset, followed here by a sight you don't see anywhere to the north: a night-sky backdrop so black and clear it seems not a single star is missing.

Maybe you'll even get a peek at the human parade common to all small ports of call. Like commercial fisherman, far from home, secretly trading yellow fin tuna for campers' rum. Or a group of guys from Fort Myers holed up for the night because they steered a mere lake boat into the gathering waters of a troubled sea.

And, of course, there are those special opportunities for peaceful reflection, before and after the ferry's daily visit, offering a chance to imagine life in centuries past for those who built and occupied this outpost at the edge of a still-new country.

It's the kind of peace, so rare in Florida, that you can experience only in surroundings this far away from it all.

Fort Jefferson is farther west even than Key West, 70 miles over open sea beyond that bohemian tourist destination, which bills itself as the end of the road.

Visitors to Fort Jefferson know better.

Ponce de Leon, whose first trip to Florida 500 years ago is remembered in events statewide this year, stopped on this island and gave the Tortugas their name after emptying the place of its turtles.

It's so isolated here that camping requires a lot of prioritization, much like mounting a backpacking trip. Campers even get pulled aside from the day trippers for their own special briefing. Two, in fact — one from the crew when you board early at the Key West Ferry Terminal and one from a park ranger when you finally dock at Garden Key.

An important message from the ranger: Don't worry; he and his fellow rangers live up in the fort and can come to your aid should a real emergency arise. Getting help lighting your charcoal, he'll add, is not a real emergency.

You might grow antsy if his briefing drags on. This is with good reason: The 15 campsites are first-come, first-served, and though any campsite in this special place is better than a campsite most anywhere else, some are nestled in tropical trees and bushes and others are more open.

The overflow campsite has no shade or protection. We saw what this can mean when a shifting wind knocked over a couple of tents pitched by a group of students from Duke University who were doing bird research.

If you have two or more people in your group, it's a good idea to politely dispatch one straight to the campground to snag a choice site once the ranger's briefing is over.

The good news is that the ferry operators keep tabs on how many campers they're carrying. They won't schedule any more once they hit their max. This reduces the chance you'll end up in overflow. It may also force you stay more nights than you wish, or fewer, depending on when there's space to haul campers on the daily ferry manifest.

Most campers come on the ferry. Seaplanes bring only day trippers to Fort Jefferson, and any overnight visitors arriving by private boat are required to use the anchorage and come ashore by dinghy. So their boats are usually big enough to sleep on.

The campground is at the southwest corner of Garden Key, adjacent to one of two small swimming beaches on the island. This beach is gentler and more scenic, framed by one of the fort's six brick walls or “curtains,” and a launching point for the best snorkeling.

Another camping detail unique to Fort Jefferson is that the modern composting toilets are only open when the ferry is away. From 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. each day, you walk to the dock and do your business on the ship — convenient enough, except when the line overlaps the line for lunch or cocktails, served just around the corner from the heads.

Four days and three nights seemed just right to get the full vacation experience at Fort Jefferson. Any less and you spend too many of your precious hours on logistics. Any more and you might have to ration supplies.

Three nights allows time to explore this “Remote park rich in history and nature,” as the park brochure declares.

These riches intersect again and again during any trip to Fort Jefferson, but nowhere more dramatically than along the short, submerged exterior wall that creates the moat surrounding the fort. A century and a half after they were laid, this assembly of rough bricks serves as a continuous artificial reef, 500 feet long on each of the longest walls.

The wall draws waves of striped grunts and see-through silversides to gently envelop a snorkeler while providing nooks for larger marine life. We saw parrotfish, brilliant blue tang, a pair of mammoth Florida lobsters, a sharp-toothed green moray eel, and just off the wall, a bug-eyed grouper.

Then there are the spiky metal pilings of the old coal docks, foreboding from the surface but so thick with fish underwater you'd think you're swimming in an aquarium.

It takes some work to get to Fort Jefferson, but once here, you've found the most accessible world-class snorkeling in Florida. It's no wonder. The fort sits in the middle of Dry Tortugas National Park, 100 square miles boasting a pristine segment of the one remaining U.S. coral reef and maybe the greatest diversity of fish on the Atlantic coast.

You'll need a boat to explore the underwater park's farthest reaches. But toss your kayak on the ferry when seas are calm in summer and you can paddle a short half-mile from the fort and anchor near the Bird Key wreck. The ship is believed to have sunk in 1856 while hauling some of the 16 million bricks it took to build the fort.

You also can use a kayak to poke around Garden Key itself. And Bush Key. And Long Key. They were separate bodies of land as late as 2000, but storms filled in the gaps so now they're one. Bird Key, in the same way, once jutted above the sea but now is at least four feet under water.

Be sure to check seasonal closures before setting out by boat. Bird nesting — 200 to 300 species have been recorded in the Tortugas — along with shark study and other natural concerns can limit your access 100 feet from shore. And ask the rangers to borrow a radio so you can stay in touch in case of trouble.

Riches of nature and history intersect in another springtime phenomenon at Fort Jefferson: Columns of magnificent frigates, floating nearly motionless, directly above the brick-walled fort. These are the long-winged black birds often seen soaring high off Pinellas shores, and they breed nowhere in the U.S. but the Tortugas.

In their size and numbers, and their odd attraction to the historic structure, the birds seem to embody the spirits of the Union soldiers, the slaves, the families, and all those who inhabited this outpost in centuries past.

For those assigned to design, build and staff it, beginning as early as 1829, Fort Jefferson was never an easy place. Blame heat and humidity, isolation, tropical storms, deadly yellow fever.

And creeping obsolescence.

Like military weapons systems throughout history, Fort Jefferson proved such a massive undertaking that by the time it neared completion, decades after construction started, the nation had moved on from the fort's original purpose.

Envisioned as key to a coastal defense strategy, championed by influential Gen. Joseph Gilbert Totten, the fort was meant to protect a growing U.S. and its shipping lanes from foreign invasion.

It may have proved a deterrent in this respect. But not once were its guns ever fired in anger. Built for one purpose, to house more 450 cannons, it never had a third that many.

It's most enduring contribution to U.S. history was as a lockup for federal prisoners including Dr. Samuel Mudd, who patched up President Lincoln's injured assassin John Wilkes Booth.

The state-of-the-art killing rooms — complete with smoke-exhaust systems and iron “Totten shutters” that automatically closed to protect a cannon after firing — had to undergo constant jury rigging to serve other purposes. Prison cells, for example. A bakery. A chapel. And today, ranger offices and housing, even a gift shop.

On one hand, then, Fort Jefferson stands as a testament to human folly. A historical waste of national resources and among the least visited of national parks.

On the other hand, federal ownership has kept it accessible to anyone who mounts a modest campaign to visit the place. Federal stimulus money has boosted a 30-year effort to stop the decay.

Fort Jefferson might have been a Club Med. We're reminded of that by the cruise-ship islands in the Caribbean and by the neon-lined yachts, as big as the park's ferry, that anchor occasionally off Fort Jefferson

Instead, the place is a faded machine of war, keeping the peace even today — for those who spend the time to go looking for it.


djoyce@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7604

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