William Walters stands in a shaded archway with sweat trickling down his forehead.
His shirt sticks to his back as he swats away a mosquito.
He’s taking a break, but make no mistake about it: He’s been working.
The Scout from Troop 39 in Maltby, Washington, is a participant in an Order of the Arrow work crew, making repairs to campsites, docks and historic buildings. The experience, known as the OA Ocean Adventure, is a seven-day program conducted in the Florida Keys in partnership with the National Park Service and the BSA’s Florida Sea Base.
In order to attend, participants must be between the ages of 16 and 20, and also be registered members of the BSA and an Order of the Arrow lodge.
“We’ve spent a lot of time clearing trails and helping make the island better for visitors,” William says. “But the greatest thing is to just stop and look. Out here, it’s so remote that it’s just pristine and unique. There’s no garbage. No light pollution. Everything is just naturally beautiful.”
Brick columns on either side of William form the hexagon-shaped perimeter of Fort Jefferson, a structure surrounded by tales of pirates, shipwrecks and treasure. Located in Florida’s Dry Tortugas National Park, this island fortress was built in the mid-1800s to protect U.S. naval ships traveling in the Florida Keys. It served as a lighthouse, a military base and even a prison.
Now, Fort Jefferson’s crystal-clear waters and extraordinary marine wildlife draw visitors from across the globe.
There’s a Trek for That
In addition to their work, OA Ocean Adventure participants also have the opportunity to snorkel, kayak, paddleboard and swim as part of the programs offered by Sea Base to all Scouts and Venturers ages 13 and older.
Hoist the sails of a 40-foot sailboat. Troll for mahi-mahi. Walk upon an island on which the population of birds far outnumbers that of humans. Watch underwater as a lobster tiptoes across the spine of a fluorescent coral.
The possibilities for adventure at Sea Base really are endless. Some say the hardest part of planning a trip is helping your crew first decide on an area of interest.
Do you … like to fish? Love to sail? Want to dive? Dream about rebuilding coral reefs? Wish you could operate underwater robots while studying fish species? (Yes, there’s a trek for that.) The Florida Sea Base offers specialty trips for all of these curiosities and more. (Check out this detailed list of 16 adventures.)
Scouts and Venturers can even sail beyond the beautiful Florida Keys and explore the Bahamas and St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, during live-aboard sailboat charters.
“I’ve been to all of the BSA’s high-adventure bases,” says Bryce Hanshaw, an Eagle Scout from Venturing Crew 5857 in Corpus Christi, Texas, “and the experience here is so different. … You’re next to the ocean or on the ocean all day. You see animals that you can’t see anywhere else — that some people might never see. It’s once in a lifetime.”
Sandy Laundry, Lasting Memories
Resting on a walkway with his legs dangling above lapping waves, Aaron Coffman sits a few feet from the moat encircling Fort Jefferson. Island legend says a crocodile once called this moat home.
(In this case, legend is true. A lone American crocodile lived there for about 15 years until it was relocated to the Everglades due to safety concerns.)
Tales like this — some true, while others of piracy and treasure remain curiously unproven — are what continue to make Garden Key and the six other islands of Dry Tortugas National Park a place of lore and adventure.
Scouts like Aaron, an Eagle Scout from Troop 150 in Scottdale, Pennsylvania, trade five days working to improve the island for the reward of exploring the waters around Fort Jefferson during the group’s afternoon downtime.
“I’ve got to do things I never dreamed I’d be able to do, like snorkeling, seeing coral reefs, witnessing outstanding wildlife,” Aaron says.
Scouts and Venturers at Sea Base learn that with a little hard work — whether dropping anchor or reeling in a snapper — comes the perk of exploring a part of the U.S. not many people ever visit.
Scroll to the bottom of this page for more photos from the Florida Sea Base.
BSA High-Adventure Bases and OA Programs
Florida High Adventure Sea Base is one of the four high-adventure bases operated by the Boy Scouts of America National Council. Each offers a unique setting for adventure you won’t find anywhere else, and each has partnered with the Order of the Arrow for intense service projects.
Philmont Scout Ranch offers 137,000 acres of rugged mountain wilderness in New Mexico for backpacking, horseback riding, camping and more. New this year: Cimarroncita, which offers more than 2,500 additional acres for camping and hiking. go.scoutlife.org/philmont
The Order of the Arrow Trail Crew program is one of the best ways to experience Philmont. For the first week, participants have the chance to make a significant difference to Philmont by participating in trail building in the backcountry. The second week of the program is spent experiencing Philmont in its finest. go.scoutlife.org/oatc
The Paul R. Christen National High Adventure Base at the Summit Bechtel Reserve features whitewater river rafting treks, zip-lining, mountain biking and more in the beautiful mountains of West Virginia. go.scoutlife.org/christen
The Order of the Arrow Summit Experience program includes four days focused on building or maintaining trails around the Summit and the New River Gorge National River Area. The remainder revolves around whitewater kayaking and rafting, along with mountain biking, climbing and participation in other Summit activities. go.scoutlife.org/oase
Northern Tier National High Adventure program offers incredible wilderness canoe treks and winter camping experiences from its bases in northern Minnesota and Canada. go.scoutlife.org/ntier
The Order of the Arrow Wilderness Voyage program lets Arrowmen from around the country experience all that the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota has to offer. go.scoutlife.org/oawv
The Canadian Odyssey program is conducted in the wild beauty of the Quetico Provincial Park of Ontario, Canada. go.scoutlife.org/oaco
Last September, Hurricane Irma made a direct hit on the Florida Keys — coming ashore near Florida Sea Base’s Brinton Environmental Center (BEC) on Summerland Key.
The BEC sustained damage from the storm’s strong winds, rising water levels and heavy rains. The Sea Base’s main facility — located in Islamorada, 50 miles northeast of the BEC — experienced only minor damage, but it did require a significant post-storm cleanup. This involved weeks of chain- sawing, power-washing, repairing buildings, collecting trash that washed onto the property and more.
All this hard work means Florida Sea Base adventures will continue as planned this summer.
Sea Base St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands was not as fortunate as the Florida property during Hurricane Irma. The Category 5 storm caused significant damage to the marina at which Sea Base St. Thomas operates. Repairs continue on the marina and boats. Head here for updates on this program and more repairs to the base.