My Time in the Florida Keys

by Luke Miller, Reporter

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In the final stretch of our journey to the four main high adventures, my friend Parker and I have already obtained the Triple Crown for visiting three of the four camps. With this last trip under our belt, we were ready to earn the Grand Slam for all four. Rough seas, shark-infested waters and a sweltering atmosphere, the Order of the Arrow Ocean Adventure, a subdivision of the BSA, packed some of the most arduous and serene experiences I have ever endured.

We landed in Miami and traveled by van to the Florida Keys for the first night. The first morning, we climbed aboard the ferry and set sail for Dry Tortugas State Park, an island discovered in 1513, known now as more of a museum than a station for the U.S. Army. After years of upkeep thanks to the Boy Scouts of America, it remains the tourist destination it is today.

Photo by Luke Miller
The moat surrounding Fort Jefferson on the Dry Tortugas. Thousands of jellyfish can be seen as different colored spots.

We took a tour of Fort Jefferson and the crystal blue waters surrounding it, and the second day we were introduced to the tools and machinery we would be using: leaf-blowers, lawn mowers, power saws and the like. The Park Ranger was a mean old dude, but he made sure work got done, so I have to respect him for that. During the day, the horse flies flocked towards the bathrooms and at night they swarmed the tents, eager to rub their feces-filled faces on vulnerable campers. On the bright side, at least there weren’t any mosquitoes.

The most enjoyable chore of the day was diving into the water to clean the keep-out signs that blocked the breached part of the moat wall. Visitors weren’t allowed was because of the overabundance of jellyfish that protected the fort. The rest of the work literally involved blood and sweat, and any tears we had would’ve evaporated immediately. It was definitely the most strenuous Parker and I have ever worked at one of the four high adventures.

Photo by Luke Miller
Sunset overlooking the Dry Tortugas.

One night, we walked down to the dock to fish for sharks. Although there were only two poles for sharks, the rest of us were able to catch fish with reels caked in squid. Only four of us actually got to catch sharks throughout our time on the Dry Tortugas, but it was still awesome to watch. Another time, an african sailor drifted in and spent most of his time just catching sharks. He needed help from Greg one of our foremen in order to unhook one, but he tossed that shark into the air as soon as the hook came out. Talk about living life to the fullest.

Throughout the trip, there were some interesting people that rolled through. Another night while we were waiting for a shark to take the bait, a drunk couple came up to us and started talking to the foremen about the most random things ever. The best thing they said was calling Jake one of the scouts Ling Ling just because he’s tall. We cracked up hard, and it’s been his nickname ever since. Those guys were weird.

One day we spent two or so hours snorkeling in the surrounding reef. It wasn’t much, what with human destruction and such, but there were still some pretty interesting areas along the island. I even came across a barracuda, although no one else was around and my GoPro conveniently missed it, but it did catch some other fishy figures.

The same guy that pitched the shark into the ocean a couple of days later caught Madea, the largest grouper fish in the area. Just to unhook her, he had to take her a quarter of the way around the island to one of the beachsides. I was able to get my GoPro pretty close to the fish’s gaping mouth, which was big enough to house a child or two. 

Later that day on the beach, a U.S. National Guard helicopter came by to do a safety check and blew everything everywhere. It was like a miniature bomb went off and shot the debris from the helicopter pad in all directions. That day happened to be the one we spent all day relaxing in the water and under one of our canopies, but not only did it almost blow over when the helicopter arrived, the rocks that flew at us felt like being shot repeatedly with a BB gun. In order to avoid the pelting storm, we had to dive underwater until the spread slowed. 

After night fell on our last day on the Dry Tortugas, a group of conservationists stationed on a nearby island walked over to us with a bucket. Inside that bucket was one baby turtle covered in sand, ready to pull itself into the ocean to die or thrive. According to the biologist, only one in 1,000 hatchlings survive after being born, so I hope that one made it.

Photo by Luke Miller
A baby Loggerhead sea turtle under red light, as any color brighter is harmful to the turtle.

We traveled back to the mainland and trekked our way around Key West until we reached the southernmost point of the continental U.S., stopping along the way to shop and regrettably drink coconut juice. Apparently coconut juice is notorious for stomach aches. Thankfully, I just got a snow cone.

We said our goodbyes early in the morning as the first shuttle arrived to take a scout to Miami International. It was sad as always to say goodbye, no matter who we bonded with the most. Although the trip was coming to a close, the memory of what we did will last a lifetime, and hopefully, our kids have the chance to participate carve their own journey in our path.

The Dry Tortugas is open to any visitor, not just Scouts. Although we helped preserve the fort and its safety measures, anyone can have the chance to revel in the gorgeous sunsets and the occasional baby turtle. Schedule a visit by ferry here. For a more dramatic entrance, take a plane ride.