In my younger days, I would have paddled my sea kayak out to Egmont Key. The crossing isn't long, but the freighters barreling down the shipping channel can make the trip a harrowing experience.
On weekends, I've anchored my 20-foot bay boat on the lee side of the island and enjoyed a picnic lunch. Most boaters will tell you there is no better anchorage in Tampa Bay. But sometimes, the best part of an adventure is the journey, not the destination.
But on this picture-perfect Wednesday morning, I packed up my kids and set out via passenger ferry to hunt for pirates on the island that guards the mouth of Tampa Bay.
The Spanish first surveyed the unique barrier island in 1757, and two years later, it was christened Castor Key after a local buccaneer. The English renamed it two years later after the Earl of Egmont. By the late 1830s, merchant ships traveled up and down the west coast of Florida, but the mouth of Tampa Bay was particularly hazardous to mariners due to the shifting sandbars off this tiny island.
In 1847, two years after Florida became a state, Congress authorized the construction of a lighthouse to help protect shipping. The structure was completed one year later, just in time for the Great Hurricane of 1848.
A 15-foot storm surge, the same one that created John's Pass, severely damaged the building. A second storm four years later finished the job. Congress appropriated additional funds to build a new beacon, one that would "withstand any storm."
The new tower, finished in 1858, stood 87 feet high and had a kerosene lamp and Fresnel lens. In the opening months of the Civil War, Confederate troops removed the lens to keep it from falling into Union hands.
Today, the lighthouse is still operational, with an automatic radio beacon that flashes every 15 seconds. You can see the light 22 miles out at sea.
But don't look for a light keeper. The lighthouse is operated by an automated system. A foghorn sounds every 30 seconds during times of poor visibility. So you might here that if you stroll along Fort DeSoto Beach on a foggy day.
When the war with Spain broke out in 1898, the call rang out to defend the citizens of Tampa from an enemy a few hundred miles away in Cuba. Congress once again opened its checkbook so Fort Dade could be built on Egmont Key. The war, however, was long over in 1906 when construction of the fort that guards the mouth of Tampa Bay was finally completed. At its height, Fort Dade had all the conveniences of a modern military base, including a theater, bowling alley and tennis courts.
But Fort Dade fell into disrepair after it was deactivated in 1923. Sea grapes and palm trees took over the parapets where sentries once stood watch over the Gulf of Mexico. Today, island visitors can explore three well-preserved gun emplacements on the north end of the island. Battery Burchsted and Battery Page, located at the south end of the island, are now almost totally covered by water, thanks to the never-ending beach erosion.
A large section of the southern half of the 400-acre island is off limits to humans due to nesting shorebirds. Colonial nesters such as terns and black skimmers gather by the thousands to raise their young among the sea oats and sand dunes. Solitary nesters, including oystercatchers, plovers and willet, can also be found in great numbers. Prime nesting time is usually February through August, depending on the species. The bird eggs are superbly camouflaged, and thus easily stepped on. That's why visitors are told to keep off the high ground and stay close to the water along the beach.
As you walk the island's nature trails, keep an eye out on the path below, not for rattlesnakes, but for gopher tortoises. There are more than 800 of these threatened animals thriving on Egmont.
These animals can reach lengths of 15 inches and weigh up to 15 pounds. At one point in our state's history, these critters were considered fine table fare. Today, they are protected under Florida law, so watch, but do not touch.
Thanks to the volunteers of the Egmont Key Alliance, many of the historic structures on this island have been preserved. Alliance members receive Egmont Key Notes, a quarterly newsletter, bi-monthly meeting notices and invitations to special events. Mail to P.O. Box 66238, St. Pete Beach 33736. For additional information, contact Egmont Key State Park, (727) 893-2627 or go to www.FloridaStateParks.org .
Access to Egmont Key is by private boat or passenger ferry, which departs daily at 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. from Fort De Soto Bay Pier and returns at 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. Cost is $20 for adults. For $15 more, the captain will take you to the ruins, an excellent snorkeling spot. For information, call (727) 867-6569 or go to www.hubbardsmarina.com