First month in Key West: My how things have changed

After one last night at Xavier and Joy’s in Coral Springs, we headed south, breaking up the drive with a one night stopover at the Cracker Barrel in Florida City.  From there it was on the US-1 and the series of islands and bridges leading to our southern destination.

 

During our first three winter stays in Key West, each one longer than the last, we thought we had learned the patterns, the ebb and flow of how things worked in The Keys generally and on the Naval Air Station campground specifically.  With the lower keys, naval base included, having sustained significant damage from Hurricane Irma in September, they were still in recovery mode in January, though services and most business had reopened.  But things were different, in both predictable and unexpected ways.

The campground did not open until December 28th, and established a reservation system: The hurricane caused enough base wide damage and some campground damage such that the RV sites remained closed until late January, significantly delaying the arrival of many of the Key West RV regulars.  Further, the old “first come, first serve” system for everyone other than active duty personnel was out the window, with the MWR office working with the national Navy Bed & Getaways contractor to establish a reservation system. Fine as far as it goes, but the sole intent was to limit the number of arrivals to 20 rigs per day, not to control over all reservations.  Unfortunately, Navy Bed’s system was not set up for this, and chaos ensued.

A lot of debris visible in the background of this pic.  A good portion of US-1 south of Big Pine had piles of it still awaiting removal.

Like many large service organizations controlling complicated systems, there is room for significant variance in how the rules and procedures are interpreted by different customer representatives, so we simply applied the “if they turn you down call again and speak to someone else rule.”  Once the official process was announced in December, we called the reservation desk (their online system is bloody awful) and were turned down for our preferred arrival date.  So we secured a back up, hung up, and immediatly called back, this time getting a different rep who magically found an open slot on our desired arrival day. 

Our first dry camping site, a big corner lot.

Fewer RVers showed up this year, and many of those came later than normal:  In Hurricane Irma’s aftermath the fate of the campground was a pretty big unknown.  Rumors swirled, tongues wagged, and many regulars began to make back up plans in alternative locations either for the whole winter, or at least in other parts of Florida where they could assess a run to Key West as things became more clear.  The base did what they could to keep everyone informed, but the campground was hardly their top priority, and until mid December it was quite unclear when the official reopen date would occur. 

Though we did not sell at this event, the Key West Seafood Festival is an annual thing for us, particularly since as retired military we get in free. Note the “Shell On Wheels” logo shirt courtesy of Dolores. 

As a predictable result, many regulars simply decided not to risk endangering full season reservations elsewhere, and once things did open up, many others pushed their arrival into late January or February.  This meant that despite an entire row of RV sites closed off due to erosion and a downed ATT data line, the campground never completely filled up like it had in past years, usually by mid January.

The positive impact of this was that the rotation from dry camp to full hook up was much shorter this year.  You might recall my past explanations of the system, the short version is that of the roughly 500 spots, less than 100 have any connections, and MWR set up a rotation system limiting FHU stays to 14 days at a stretch.  Last year we arrived in late December and had more than three weeks in dry before we rotated to FHU; this year it only took 12 days for our first rotation.  Last year our second string in dry lasted just short of five weeks; this year it was less than three. 

Though the social calendar for January was not like that in 2017, it was not without some traditional events, such as the large contingent of Sigsbee people at Lucy’s for Taco Tuesday.  Sadly, Brian, seated next to me, passed away in March.  We were glad we got to know him under happy circumstances in the short time we were all in Key West. 

The downside was that many of our friends and acquaintances were simply not there this year, and having found other winter options, some of them might not come back next year either.  Bummer!

As alluded to above, a good number of sites, many of the premier water front locations, were closed:  Physical damage, erosion and the questionable stability of the sagging ATT data lines, resulted in the base closing the entire front row of the dry camping section; something like 30 spots.  A couple of others were closed until damaged tree branches could be removed.  Further, several of the FHU sites had pedestal damage and were thus closed.  Lastly, the permanent dry camping sites over on Trumbo Point did not open until mid January.   The fact that despite these issues we still enjoyed a much faster rotation than in the past drives home how many fewer rigs showed up this year.

The activities started off severely curtailed:  A combination of fewer regulars, a swamped MWR activities office, personnel changes, and some still closed base facilities resulted in a lot few organized on base activities this year.  Crafting was down from three to one day a week, yoga was limited, the pool was closed, the community center was unavailable for most of the weekend due church (the base chapel took heavy hurricane damage) and worst of all: no Shuffles!  That’s right, the premier monthly social event, the forty person, multiple host, moving parties of past years just never made it onto MWR’s schedule.  Sigh.

PKM at rest in front of our second site, full hook ups, water front.

We did a lot more markets this year than in the past, despite the base having fewer:  Last year we did a grand total of three markets in all of January, February, and March.  This included two on base “yard & craft” sales and one event hosted by the Lower Keys Medical Center (LKMC).  I really expected things to be about the same this year.  Rosemarie had other plans, and her frenzied research revealed a number of new, or at least new to us, market opportunities.  Had we been willing to drive as far as Marathon, and been willing to risk some higher than usual vendor fees, we could have participated in a market every day of the week along with a few special one time per year events!  No thanks, that’s too much like a job, but we did end up doing seven market days in January alone this year.

Fresh ceviche from one of the markets at which we sold.

This really, really surprised me.  I had thought our inquiries from last year revealed that we were not eligible for most of the lower keys events, and thus I assumed we would only do the monthly base event, the annual LKMC fund raising market, possibly the once a season on base Family Day fair, and maybe the once a year two day event at the botanical gardens.  And I was quite OK with slowing things down; we had averaged nine market days a month since early September.

Curry garlic chicken with shiitake mushrooms, also from one of our markets.

But Rosemarie found us so many more options, and for January we did three small but consistent market days on Surgarloaf Key (only 17 miles up the road from us), two days at the expensive but crowded Thursday Bayview Park event in Key West, and two Fridays at the very small but intimate new market at the American Legion on Stock Island (minutes from our campground.)  Note that this does not include a single on base event: the monthly yard sale never happened during our stay, likewise the on base Sigsbee Charter School event we did in 2016, and family day was not until February. 

After having put the word out last year that I wanted to do some salt water fishing, I got the opportunity this year:  Though I was born and raised in Florida, I had never fished in salt water in my life. I recall one night of shrimping in a channel as a child, but that’s it.  For much of my adulthood, I considered this no great loss since I had it in my head that I simply did not like seafood.  An encounter with Maine lobster in the late 90’s cured me of that, and I have been a fan of salt water seafood ever since.  But still, no fishing. 

With word on the street, I got an invite to go out with Mark and a few others on his small but effective boat.  I secured my Florida Resident’s annual fishing license online, and Mark was gracious enough to lend me whatever gear I was lacking, along with the knowledge of how to set up the rig for the type of shallow water drop and drag fishing we would be doing.

As he and other regular fishmen from the campground would tell me, “we’re not really fishing, we’re catching.”  And sure enough, with a bit over three hours on the water the four of us returned with something like 60 legal fish, most of them Lane Snappers, Grunts, and Porgies.  They considered this just a so-so day.  My kind of fishing, and well worth the customary chip in for boat gas money!

Whole fried Lane Snapper, fresh caught.

A week or two later Jim showed me his spot for shore fishing, an entirely different and in my mind more demanding task, but we ended the day with 5 decent Mangrove Snappers each, our limit for that type of fish.  I would go out one more time with Mark and crew one more time, but also got connected with enough others that I had more fishing than I could handle for the rest of our stay.

I wasn’t the only one to get out on the water; Our friends David and Clara are members of the local sailing club with access to their small catamarans, and with one open seat available Rosemarie go to spend a couple of hours on the bay. 

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