Under the Sea

So it’s Natalie’s turn! When asked where she wanted to go, without hesitation she remarked, “Florida.” When asked why, a suntan topped her list. So off we go to southern Florida during her Spring Break, highlighted by a trip to Dry Tortugas National Park.

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With a layover in St. Louis, we made a pit-stop for lunch and some sweets at “Natalie’s.” In her attempt to accumulate some gobstoppers from the candy dispenser, Natalie when a little too heavy on the lever and racked up an expensive bill for dad. A nasty thunderstorm in St. Louis also delayed our flight to Fort Lauderdale. Natalie’s face in the picture below speaks for itself at this point.

From the moment we loaded our bags into the rental car we could tell they spent a little too long in the rain. Upon opening them our fears were confirmed. Nearly all our clothes were soaking wet. We cancelled our campsite reservations for the evening, checked into a hotel, and thankfully found a dryer a few doors from our room.

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The next day we drove to Sarasota to visit my biological mother, Grace Riker. We spent a few hours with her at Siesta Key on a very beautiful day.

A bite to eat after the morning at the beach.

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From Sarasota, Natalie and I drove south along the Gulf Coat for a brief stop in Venice. Venice is a popular location for finding shark teeth along the shore. In one of the pictures below you can see Natalie sifting through the sand. The picture on the far right shows what happens if you lay on your back too long in the “sand.” We didn’t find any shark teeth that day, but it sure felt like a million were lodged in my skin.

As is customary, a mandatory stop in Walmart to stock-up on our food supplies for the week.

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Normally KOA is a safe choice for a campground. This one was an exception. The tents, of which we were the only one, were placed in an open field illuminated by street lights. To make matters worse, the place was infested with biting gnats and mosquitoes. Thankfully there was another Walmart across the street. You can see our two purchases on the picnic table behind Natalie – a can of bug spray and a citronella candle.

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Welcome to the Everglades!

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We found this fruit stand deep in the Everglades. Interestingly, we stopped off at this same place as a family back in 2012. They had a large assortment of tropical fruits. As you can see, we purchased some really red watermelon and juicy pineapple which we consumed in the parking lot.

The National Park itself!

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We were able to see some nice gators!

More shots from Everglades National Park.

Later in the day we drove from the Everglades to Key West. The drive was almost three hours long. The picture in the middle is Natalie standing by the seven-mile bridge, the longest bridge spanning any of the Keys.

Key West

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This one made Natalie’s day! When Julie and I were in Barbados, the man who sold us a couple coconuts opened them the traditional way with a machete. This guys used a more modern device. A quick drill hole, pop in a straw and $3.00 please.

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As we were watching the sunset, we ran into a family we know very well from our home town. Their daughter and Natalie are good friends.

Then next day we woke up around 5:00 in the morning, broke down our campsite and drove the 20 minutes to the ferry terminal. In the picture below you can see Natalie transporting our camping gear from the car to the ship. We were really looking forward to our 2 days at Dry Tortugas National Park.

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The ferry ride was about 2 and a half hours traveling 70 miles directly west from Key West.

Doing push-up with a man from the ferry crew on the stern of the boat.

Our first views of Dry Tortugas from the ferry as we pulled into the harbor.

Spanish explorer Ponce de León gave the Dry Tortugas their name on his first visit in 1513.They were given the name Las Tortugas (The Turtles) due to 170 sea turtlestaken on the islands and shoals by de León’s men. Soon afterward, the word “Dry” was added to the name, to indicate to mariners the islands’ lack of springs. The United States government never completed Fort Jefferson after 30 years on Garden Key, and this bastion remained in Union hands throughout the Civil War. It later was used as a prison until abandoned in 1874. Dr. Samuel Mudd, famous for being the doctor who treated John Wilkes Booth in the wake of the Lincoln assassination, was imprisoned here until early 1869. During the 1880s, the Navy established a base in the Dry Tortugas, and it subsequently set up a coaling (refueling) and a wireless (radio) station there as well. Dry Tortugas became an official National Park in 1992 (adapted from Wikipedia).

Below is an aerial photograph borrowed from the Internet. The old “coal loading docks” can be seen in the upper left and lower left corners of the picture. The concrete land platforms are still there, but the ones that extended into the water have been lost due to storms. The metal supports that remain made for the best areas to snorkel. The campsite is in the area with the brush outside of the fort near the top of the picture. A mote surrounds the fort and as you can see, the fort itself occupies almost the entire island.

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We took these pictures seen below not long after we arrived. We took a walk around the fort using the outside wall that separates the ocean and the mote.

The lunch on the boat was great.

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A path to our campsite. You can see our green tent off in the distance.

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We had a great campsite for the evening!

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Though Natalie didn’t eat that hermit crab, you can see my dinner on display.

These pictures were taken when Natalie and I toured Fort Jefferson by ourselves later in the afternoon.

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Camping directly next to us was Howie Crouse, the Assistant Superintendent from district 204 in Naperville Illinois where I taught back in the 90’s. I coached his sons in wrestling and hadn’t seen him in almost 20 years. The only reason we connected was because I was telling another camper I went to Wheaton College and he peeked around the corner and and said he was from Naperville. The rest is history.

The great thing about camping on the island was that when the ferry departs at 3:00 pm, you are left alone with only a dozen or so other campers. You can have the full run of the fort until sunset and the viewing of the sunset itself is practically from your own private Caribbean beach! The land off in the distance (about 3 miles away) is Loggerhead Island where the primary lighthouse for the Dry Tortugas Islands is located.

After sunset Natalie and I walked the mote with flashlights looking for lobsters and fish.

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Sunrise the next morning.

Hanging out before the crowd arrives.

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A few brushes up against the sharp loading dock poles in the pursuit of chasing tropical fish for my videos.

Do sharks really follow….

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Lunch on the boat again.

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Our guided tour of the fort just before we needed to depart.

A final picture of our favorite beach located a few steps from our campsite.

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Some pictures from our snorkeling adventures at Dry Tortugas!

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Natalie’s assistance from the local rangers after her run-in with a Portuguese Man o’ War.

A video recap of our overnight stay at Dry Tortugas

We’ll miss this place!

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The ferry just before departure.

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A final view (and picture) of the island as we began our return to Key West.

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The best salted caramel shake we’ve ever tasted!

Another really lame campsite. Basically had to pitch the tent on a road.

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Sunday morning church in Islamorada. Just before we entered the church I heard from my cousin Karla that my Aunt Helen (who was very ill) had just passed away.

A restaurant in the Florida Keys called “Jersey Boardwalk.” Couldn’t resist a stop for lunch and some pizza. Interestingly, on the wall were various pictures of New Jersey boardwalks. Pictured on the right is a photograph from the Belmar Boardwalk, only about a mile from our home.

Here we are for the final 2 days of our vacation at John Pennekamp State Park.

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After dinner at Subway, we stopped off at a local supermarket and purchased a “few” dinner snacks!

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A great sunrise!

Our campsite for 2 nights.

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On our final day we took a boat a few miles off the shore to a choral reef. The waves were a little choppy, but the visibility was good and the array of fish was incredible.

Some pictures from our trip!

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Laying out and snorkeling the last day at “canon beach” at John Pennekamp.

Some our our snorkeling experiences on video.

Our final dinner…and it was a good one!

Dessert: Natalie’s “small” bowl of ice cram and for me a slice of Key Lime Pie.

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The final sunset 😦

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Taken as we were heading back to our campsite for the evening.

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Sunrise the next day. If we would have skipped this we might have not missed our flight!

Due to commuter traffic outside of Miami and a nasty accident on the Florida Turnpike we missed our flight. Being Spring Break, everything was booked. Our desire to get back home took a series of connecting flights that spanned the entire day – Fort Lauderdale to Tampa to Nashville (below) to St. Louis (we’re going the wrong way!) to LaGuardia. We finally ended up getting home after midnight.

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The New York City skyline as we were preparing to land.

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“Give thanks to the LORD of hosts, for the LORD is good, for His lovingkindness is everlasting” (Jer. 33:11).

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