Photos by Martha Hubbard
Photos by Linda Grist Cunningham
Choose your camping companions wisely
Ranger Ed and I thought we were onto something in April 2017, when we did our first three-nights-four-days camping at Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas, 70 miles west of Key West. Let’s do this every year, we said with sweaty grins and stinky hair, forgetting in less than 12 hours that we’d spent a goodly portion of those four days riding out a tropical storm in a tent.
Do it again we did in May 2018. We tried in 2019, but between a bunch of family things and a nutty island schedule, we skipped. Yeah, and then Covid, which would have been a great time (we thought) to go except so did a bazillion mainland folks. The wait for reservations went from six months to a year.
Camping at Fort Jefferson had become akin to the Covid-inspired Disney World crowds but without the amenities. Not only was the ferry booked out forever, but anyone who could beg, borrow, charter and (perhaps) steal a boat was headed to Fort Jefferson with a sleeping bag and some charcoal.
Didn’t sound like much fun and we thought maybe we ought get rid of the camping gear. Then one day this spring, as I made calls for a previous column, someone canceled and I scored four reservations for mid-June. I whipped out the credit card and texted my ranger, Martha Hubbard and Kathy Flick to start packing. I should have called the cat sitter first because sitters willing to take on the Cat 5s are harder to get than a camping reservation.
We spent months making lists and reminding each other not to pack too much (none of us listened).
2022 tips for camping at Fort Jefferson
We’ve learned a lot that’s not in the handouts over three, very different Fort Jefferson camping trips. If you’re camping for the first time, my 2018 column, “10 tips no one tells you” will be helpful. And, here’s what the 2022 trip taught us:
- Know the rules. The folks at the ferry do a great job explaining how things work, right down to how much water you’ll need. If you’re going out on a private boat charter, you’ll still want to read the camping guidelines from the Dry Tortugas ferry. Their advice is comprehensive and dovetails well with the National Park Service rules for campers. If you’re on a private boat, you might get away with bending those rules, but only if the rangers miss it — and they rarely do. PS: Charter seaplanes do not ferry campers in and out. Too much weight.
- When the ranger says it’s cooler in the field, listen. It is so tempting to pitch the tent in one of the eight, picturesque camp sites in the buttonwood mangrove. But the overflow field in front of the fort, where there’s no shade and no privacy, has breeze. Lots and lots of breeze. We should have listened; instead we dug into Number Two and regretted it for eight hours every single night. Not a breath of air on any of the three nights, and yet when we stepped around the corner, the breeze was delightful.
- If you’re going to camp, do at least two nights. Why? Because it’s almost as much hassle to prep and pack for one night as for three. And, it takes at least 24 hours to stop picking up your smartphone to scroll text messages. There will be none, of course.
- Keep the group small. You can have up to three tents and six campers per site, but they’re cozy with two and crowded with four. Six pushes the limit. These camp sites are about 625 square feet with little more than a polite head nod between them. You’re going to hear and see your fellow campers close up. Including the snoring.
- Pick your camping companions carefully. Pack-in-pack-out Fort Jefferson camping isn’t for everyone. No shame in that. I love a five-star resort and my own pillows, too. Here’s who you want to have along when you’re sharing a tent with someone who hasn’t showered in days, sleeping on the ground with hermit crabs and stumbling through other people’s camp sites in the dark to the compost toilets 100 yards away:
- Seasoned tent and backpack campers who can lift and carry 20-45 pounds. Who can pound in tent stakes and do it again — at noon in the heat, sun and no breeze. I’m pretty sure Martha and I owe a king’s ransom to Flick and Ranger Ed. I mean, we worked, too, but those two were site-prep machines.
- Who complain about sand, sun and heat and happily count it as the price for three nights under the stars (or in a tropical storm.) Who grin in the morning after a night of no sleep because it was so hot in the tent that one melted into the tarp and stuck one’s feet outside in the unjustified hopes of a breeze. And didn’t screech when the crabs walked across said feet.
- Companions who entertain themselves with personalities to match your own. If you’re the chatty type, you’ll not want to camp with a bunch of silent introverts. Or vice versa. There is, for the most part, nothing to do except read, prep meals, clean up stuff and move one’s chair to follow the shade. Add an occasional snorkel, a wander through the fort, get up at sunrise and go to bed just after sunset or moon rise. We four sat for hours under an ocean-side buttonwood mangrove, cooling off in the water occasionally and rarely having more than a desultory, two minute conversation. Fort Jefferson camping is not for easily bored kids, alcohol-hyped, party-hearty adults or anyone for whom camping requires a shower, an RV with extensions and AC. Or flush toilets, electricity, cell and wifi, for that matter.
Worth the hassles? Of course. That’s why we’re going back. We’ve got 10 months to remind ourselves — then promptly forget — that we really should bring half as much food and twice as much water. And, pitch our tents in the overflow area if we can’t luck into that one, perfectly placed camp site with both a tree and a breeze.