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Sunday Favorites: Camping Fort DeSoto

Fishing off the back of our campsite.

SAINT PETERSBURG -- It had been at least five years since my last paid vacation. When I told my editor at the Charlotte Sun that I was taking a whole week vacation he seemed genuinely interested in my plans. 

“What are you doing?” he asked. 

“We’re going camping,” I responded. 

“For the whole week?”

When I nodded yes he responded, “That sounds terrible.”

But I put my editor’s comments out of my mind and my boyfriend, Drew, and I went to Walmart, bought supplies and packed the car. We strapped a kayak and paddle board to the top of his Jeep, and set out for Fort DeSoto Park, located just outside of  Saint Petersburg, on Monday. 

The park, operated by Pinellas County, is made up from five offshore keys, or islands lying to the city's south-southwest and is considered a “poor man’s retreat”, welcoming thousands of visitors each year, drawn to the camping, recreational opportunities, nature and especially the park’s North Beach facility, which was named best beach in America in 2005. 


The park looked beautiful when we arrived and my editor’s warning seemed even more distant. The kayak didn’t fly off when we crossed the Sunshine Skyway bridge and we didn’t get a flat tire on the road trip, so I was feeling pretty good. When we pulled into site 42 in Fort DeSoto, my editor’s terrible words were an afterthought, a distant memory in some forgotten land. 

The campsite didn’t look anything like it did in the picture posted on the park website, but it was a chance for us to rent some waterfront real estate for a few days, to have our own poor man’s vacation.  

Of course, arriving in the middle of the afternoon, there was no shade anywhere in sight. It looked like some scorched earth dirt hole that registered 100 degrees when we pulled in and I then wondered if an entire week without air conditioning was such a good idea after all. 

The heat was our first problem. The park’s natives came next. 

The first raccoon appeared around 3 pm, an early riser for a species that is supposedly nocturnal. He immediately appeared at our picnic table, feeling things out and sniffing his way around the site. We yelled and screamed at him but it didn’t matter. The round furry ball finally sauntered off into the woods on his own.

The first attack averted, we grabbed our poles and hit the water, which was just steps from our campsite. The back-bay was cool, a welcome respite from the heat of the site and it felt like things were sliding back into normal, away from jinxes from smug editors. Poles, cold beer and frozen shrimp in hand, I started to show Drew how to properly cast a rod. We left the bait on shore, which proved to be the first of many raccoon mistakes. 

Raccoon prints

We heard rustling in the mangroves and turned to find our early rising nemesis snatching the bait and running away. Drew made chase, but the sarong he was wearing made it difficult to get good speed and even more challenging to crawl through the mangroves after the raccoon. They both disappeared and all I could hear was yelling and screeching and when Drew returned, bait in hand, he looked exhausted, confused and most of all, a little scared. 

“We played tug of war with the shrimp,” he said, shaking his head, mud on his sarong. “That little beast shows no mercy.”

The fun of fishing suddenly dashed, we retreated to the site, put everything in the Jeep and decided to make use of the kayak and paddle board we’d brought along, hoping that an elusive white sand beach we heard about would set our minds at ease. 

But, as we got out into the bay and could see the beach, the wind picked up and Drew suddenly reverted back to his old kayak ways. Unable to control the boat, he drifted in circles and called for help. At that point, I was a long way down wind of his kayak and was way too exhausted to attempt a rescue mission. However, the gods were on our side and the wind essentially pushed us directly back to the campsite.

We got back with enough time to relax before our dinner guests arrived. Family and friends showed up with potluck side dishes for a grand BBQ. Since there had been no sign of our uninvited guests we pulled the coolers out of the Jeep to prep for supper of hamburgers, hotdogs and brats. 

Someone spotted a brilliant pink sunset so we all went down to the water to watch the scene and in the 15 minutes we were gone from the campsite, our raccoon had come out of hiding, gone through the cooler, ripped open a pound of ground beef and began gorging himself, resting the meat on his fat belly. He was so full when he finished that he couldn’t make it back up the tree to his den but instead just laid on the ground unable to move.  

We were mad, of course. However, when he finally picked himself up off the ground, climbed into the stand of palm trees and wrapped himself in fronds, falling asleep, with one leg perturbing from his blanket, it was hard to stay angry. 

We dined on hotdogs and bratwurst, making sure to clean up every morsel so not to attract any other animals. One raccoon had been enough to lay siege to our supplies, so we could only imagine the disorder an entire team of raccoons could bring. 

So, sun down, bellies full, guests departed, we turned in for the night. We retired to our tent and readied for sleep. But, when the coordinated attack started minutes later, and the raccoons began foraging through our stuff, sleep was impossible and we were worried about our supplies. 

At one point I got up and went outside only to find our furry friend relaxing in the seat of the kayak and munching on chicken wings that he must have stole from some other oblivious camper’s cooler. I knew it was our old nemesis by the way he rested the chicken on his fat belly and leisurely took bites while reclining in our boat. I thought maybe we should float him out into the bay, and let the wind and tide twist him in circle like it did Drew. 

I made my way down to the water to look at the moon, unable to sleep and utterly convinced that my editor had really cursed us. There, flashlight in hand, I watched mullet jump in the grass flats, caught in the light of the moon, breaking the glass-like surface of the bay water. Turning the flashlight into the mangroves, I saw dozens of pairs of glowing eyes, staring back at me. The attack team was washing the decadence of their meal from their hands, getting all the powdered sugar, nacho cheese Dorito dust and raw chicken out of their thieving little claws. 

Tired now, and ready for sleep, I decided to turn in and hope that the next day was better. I figured that in the morning we’d be safe, raccoons tucked away in their little dens, and we could eat breakfast like normal people. But, in the morning, the seagulls showed up, followed by crows, all dive-bombing us. At one point, I hit a gull with a saltshaker but the impact was only a slight deterrence, as the birds continued to hover overhead waiting for the opportunity to descend upon our meal.

After that, we ate out for the rest of the week. Despite the hostile island natives, the location of the park allowed us to venture downtown and eat at all our favorites places. I began to realize that although camping wasn’t the ideal situation, the location and setup was ideal and at Fort Desoto we were able to enjoy some of the most beautiful Florida Islands in a primitive sense. 

That’s the beauty of the park, and much of Tampa Bay, so close to nature but surrounded by civilization. The curse had proved true, but the trip was worth it and can’t wait to go back to Fort DeSoto. But, this time, I’ll know not to underestimate the park’s natives, especially our furry little nemesis. 


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