Friday, January 23, 2009


Fort Jefferson, where I live, is on Garden Key. Three miles away is Loggerhead Key, which is home to the area's only vital, functioning lighthouse. Buffeted by winds and hurricanes, Loggerhead Lighthouse is kept up and running by devoted volunteers who come and stay for a month at a time.

See photos of Loggerhead.

One set of volunteers, Robin and Terry, are notorious for the coffee they serve up in cups that hold about a quart of the caffeine- and sugar-loaded concoction. I was lucky enough to sample some of their home brew one day when my Robin was getting his tour of the utilities and I tagged along (as official volunteer).

These utilities consist of several interesting systems that truly take some ingenuity to keep them functioning. Because it's still the Dry Tortugas (no water), there is water collection from a precarious setup that intakes from the ocean and pumps it through a reverse osmosis machine (same as it is here on Garden Key).

Power comes from a generator and a solar array (with its accompanying battery array). The volunteers have to keep everything running.

Reportedly, the island has been free of Tortugas Squirrels since around 2001. However, there is fresh evidence of a recent infiltration (probably from a Coast Guard vessel).

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Top 10 things fort living and Southeast Alaska living have in common

  1. Luggage is similar ... lots of hauling around lots of stuff in plastic tubs, grocery store bags, garbage bags, etc.
  2. Remoteness. Reaching either location is possible only by boat or plane ... only Dry Tortugas sea planes just went out of business so now it's ferry access only. (Lots of Dramamine for me!)
  3. Travel is extremely weather dependent. (Alaska is usually related to fog, winds and visibility; Dry Tortugas is all about wind, wind, wind.)
  4. Logistics, logistics, logistics. Access to anything is a long way away so you better a) be prepared, b) be stocked up on everything and then some and c) have creative problem solving skills.
  5. Technology is challenging. Satellite internet service in both places is heavily affected by atmospheric conditions (wind, rain, etc.) so don't bank on having access. Phone service is spotty at best but usually better in Alaska (although you could lose service for no apparent reason and without warning for days on end at times).
  6. Traveling is time intensive so be prepared. Bring food. Bring reading material. And more of both than you think you could possibly need. And maybe a sleeping bag and pillow.
  7. Fishing is good and is a mainstay of our diet.
  8. Weather is consistent. (Alaska has rain and clouds; Dry Tortugas has wind, wind, wind and sun.)
  9. Black and white birds are everywhere. (Alaska has magnificent bald eagles; Dry Tortugas has buzzards.)
  10. Interesting people from all walks of life are doing all sorts of interesting things.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Chugga chugga

Now that the wind has died below 30 knots, I posted the photos from the Cuban landing a couple of weeks ago.

This group of 14 Cuban guys landed on Loggerhead Key after a 26-hour journey across 90-some miles of open ocean in a homemade boat (called a chug and quite an engineered contraption). Yikes!

See the photos.

This is all quite a process and is a real drain on the entire staff. The law enforcement rangers hauled them over to the fort from Loggerhead in the middle of the night (of course) and guarded them all night. Then, it's waiting until the Coast Guard can come and retrieve them (hopefully at daylight the next day but that doesn't always happen). In the meantime, law enforcement gave them food, water and clothes ('cause the ones they were in were nasty)!

Marching them out of the fort was quite a scene. All the tourists were scrambling for photos. Some even wanted to pose with the group of Cubans and get their photo taken. (Fortunately, this was quickly kiboshed by the lead law enforcement dude.)

Once the Coast Guard arrives, all the Cubans have to put on life vests (yeah, that makes a lot of sense after the way they just traveled!), get on the Coast Guard tender and then go to the Coast Guard cutter. After that, rumor has it they get $4000 or so and get to stay.

Then, the crew here at the fort has to retrieve the chug. In this case, it's taking a boat over to Loggerhead, towing it back to Garden Key and hauling it out of the water. Then, the chug stays here until they can decontaminate it (drain it of fuel and stuff), chop it up and haul it back to the mainland for proper disposal (dumping in a landfill).

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Quote of the day

From Robin after yet another single glass of red wine gave him a headache:

"That's it. I'm not having any more red wine. Unless someone offers it to me."

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Island fever

We've been at the fort since December 16, almost one month straight. Normally, it's a 10 day on, 4 day off work schedule. We've been here so long because Robin's co-worker is recovering from a head injury and his supervisor is on vacation. Thus, there's no one to work except Robin.

Rats seen: dead, one baby and one on my balcony
Tourists seen: too many to count
Cubans seen: 14 (pictures to come)
Chugs seen: 1

In a mere 2 days, weather permitting, we get to leave our little 21-acre island.

I hope it's calm!

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Key condundrums

Keys are an important part of life. You usually don't realize how important they are until you are locked out of where you want to be. Like your house. Or the post office box. Or your room in the shared apartment.

I tried to get sets of keys to all of the above. So far, I haven't succeeded. I'm not done trying, though. (Now I'm starting to get pretty pissed off about it.)

Four full-time employees are based in Key West. A rotating staff of 8 people go through Key West every 9 days. At any given time, there are at least 4 people, usually 8, who come to the fort each week, often on different days. That typically leaves two opportunities a week to bring out the mail. (That's if you don't count the daily tourist ferry, who's staff always offers to bring the mail out to us.) We've been here since November 25. We've received mail twice. I've been told we can't duplicate the mailbox key because it "isn't in the budget." (Home Depot sells keys for $1.59.) I've also been told that the person who holds the mailbox key won't pick up anyone else's mail besides their own, siting that it is a felony to pick up someone else's mail.

Here at the fort, when the wind blows a certain way at our place, it slams the front door shut and locks it as you leave. Robin and I have one key between us. Again, there are no duplicate keys. (I guess it has never been in the budget to make them, either.) When this happens, I have to track down someone who has the master key. (Yep, there's only one of those, too.) He's been on vacation since before Christmas.

I also don't have a set of keys for our apartment in Key West. Same song, same dance.

Solving these very simple issues does not require any out-of-the-box thinking here ... it barely takes any thinking at all. I'm thinking about some TV show or movie I saw where they made key imprints in bars of soap. That might be what it takes!

Friday, January 2, 2009

All in a day's work

Whatever happened to those dreams of an isolated, deserted island? It sure isn't deserted here!

This past week, both ferries have been at full capacity, hauling about 125 people each every single day. That's a daily influx of 200 people.

Add to that some guy accidentally falling off the second story and subsequent helicopter medivac. We worked past midnight that night, clearing the landing area, notifying campers, all sorts of stuff.

Then, our first batch of Cubans arrived last night. The poor law enforcement ranger has to stand guard over them until the Coast Guard comes to pick them up. Reportedly, the Coast Guard is not cooperating fully in arranging the pick up. Hope I don't have to get my bear spray!

I'm tired!