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Return to Florida

Wednesday, 25 February 2004
written by Teresa

Gulf Beach The white sands of the Gulf Islands National Seashore stretch across the Mississippi border into the Florida panhandle. Thin ribbon barrier islands run parallel to the coast, their southern sides buffeted by the gulf waters, their northern shores gentle in the lee of the land. The dunes are on a slow but steady march carried by the wind, the grasses attempting to anchor the front line in a natural defence mirrored by Fort Pickens out on the tip of the island. On the evening we arrived the temperatures were chilly, the wind up and the sea distinct with white riders, the sky heavy with the promise of rain. By the following morning, the heavens had opened and for a short while the camper stood in three inches of water while the ground struggled to absorb the sudden onslaught. Walking boots and full waterproofs were needed while the inter-dune ponds were replenished at a surprising rate. Other than the fort and the various gun posts, there is virtually no development making it one of the most attractive pieces of Florida coastline. The dazzling sands frame the island and strolling along the beach, rain or shine there are few people to greet on the way, the gulls and the pelicans willing to share their domain with few comments.

It's really this color We were back in the sunshine state for Eric and Jeanette's wedding, our destination, the Keys. Driving off the mainland the long trek begins, passing from one island to another across the back of the bridges linking the chain down the string of Keys. I am astounded anew at the colour of the water, it's various turquoises lying side by side with its darker blues, in a painting it could not look real, I want to drink it in, somehow capture it in my minds eye.

Just Married The wedding takes place in their back garden beneath the swaying coconut palms and pines. Family and friends have gathered and the dappled light plays on the scene, the deep rich red and white flower arrangements look especially stunning in this setting. They both look wonderful and are married by a friend who has known them since they first met. This is very much a Keys wedding, informal, tropical, the groom and best man both in shorts, the temperatures balmy and the setting idyllic. It's a good start to married life together.

In spite of living in Florida for a short while, we have never made time to go out to the Dry Tortugas National Park. Now was our chance. The islands lie seventy miles off Key West and a passenger ferry goes out each day. We left the camper behind, dug out our backpacking tent and prepared for three nights on a desert island. On the quay, waiting to board the boat we realise that we have forgotten the camera. Last time we left it behind was also on a boat trip; is there some strange correlation? However, luck is with us on this occasion. The seaplane that brought our camera out Being the well-known man about town, Eric was able to arrange with Peter, the booking agent for Seaplanes of Key West, for the camera to be brought out a couple of days later. Now these are the sorts of connections we could do with all over the country!

We went out on a large catamaran known as the Fast Cat and although the sea was choppy and Sterling felt a little under the weather, all seemed to be going well until there was a suspiciously loud bang under the hull. The crew offered assurances that we had simply hit something floating in the water and that it was nothing to be concerned about. The truth is that the something was a little more substantial than one might have liked and the boat is now out of commission awaiting repairs, our trip home courtesy of the other ferry company.

Dry Tortugas is probably the most unusual National Park we have visited. In spite of its name, the majority of the park is under water with a handful of small islands rising above the waves. The Spanish originally named it for the number of turtles found here but became Dry rather than Las in order to warn sailors that there was no fresh water here. Light Tower The ferries arrive at Garden Key, a tiny island dominated by an enormous moated fort built in the mid eighteen hundreds to control and protect shipping in the area. There are no trails here, the only walking, round and round the moat wall, sea conditions permitting. Fort Jefferson, long since deserted by the military now poses a continual challenge to the park service in its attempts to repair and restore the structure as it crumbles with the passage of time and the salty corrosion. It's original builders faced engineering problems as the weight of the building began to sink into the underlying sands, forcing them to abandon the original plans to complete the second tier. In spite of this there is still a wonderful symmetry in its hexagonal shape and its endless arches disappearing into the distance. The architectural plans incorporated a rainwater gathering system culminating in underground cisterns that unfortunately became compromised by the structure shifting on the sands. The rangers who live in the fort today still rely on the age old method of gathering fresh water, the island still being dry and the campground has no showers, no drinking water and composting toilets. Camping here means carrying in all your water and carrying out all your rubbish and maybe partly as a result of this the tiny campground does not fill up and there are comparatively few people around for most of the day.

During the hours of ten thirty and two thirty it is a different story. The ferryboats arrive, the seaplanes come in and out and droves of day-trippers swarm into the fort and gather for lunch beside the moat; the gulls and plovers descend, picking off the crisps that inevitably become air-borne in the gusty breeze. Only rough seas preventing the crossing break this daily pattern and looking at the visitor's book there had already been a handful of such days this year, another occurring on our second morning. It is a very different place without the daily influx. Sooty Terns Other than the park employees, there are perhaps a couple of dozen campers left to enjoy the peace broken only by the distant cries of the Sooty Terns nesting on the adjacent island.

At this time of year, Bush Key is closed to visitors as it slowly transforms into the only significant Sooty Tern nesting area in the States. The air above the island is thick with their dark silhouettes diving and swerving in the growing frenzy of mating and nesting. In the past the gulls would have left before the terns arrived having exhausted their food supply but now a days the promise of aerial crisps keeps them here and poses a growing threat to the tern colony as the eggs are laid and chicks hatched.

Now you might expect that a campground literally out in the middle of nowhere would be dark and quiet at night, but you would be wrong. The first evening, the Park Service supply boat tied up and kept its engine running all night. USCG Buoy Tender The next night a large matt grey NOAA vessel docked leaving on its very bright lights and running its engine but even this was trumped on the third evening when a coastguard ship arrived as the afternoon light faded. They had lights bright enough for a small town and a loudspeaker system through which the captain could give orders to the crew, the most important of these being the next morning, when the announcement that breakfast was served boomed across the campground. The previous night the crew had disgorged onto the dock with cases of beer, presumably forbidden to drink on board. We could still hear the revelry as we drifted off to sleep.

Cuttlefish It's impossible to end this log without some mention of the hardy member of the pair who in spite of cold-water temperatures, cool air and a brisk wind nevertheless decided to go snorkelling. I remained on dry land dressed in virtually every piece of clothing I had brought while Sterling braved the elements and was rewarded by a cuttlefish display as they pretended either to be a large fish with two big eyes or to be sea grass wafting in the current. While I regret missing what he described as some of the best onshore snorkelling he's ever seen, I was just too much of a wimp to face the goose bumps and shivers.

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