April 5, 2007 — There is an annual mass migration toward the shore happening right now on St. Croix; one that goes back many years. However, some feel the migration may be under nearly as much threat from development and outside influences as our sea turtles.
This migration, however, is of people — not animals. Popular all over the Caribbean, the tradition of Easter camping is especially strong on St. Croix and Vieques.
At Cramer’s Park, Salt River, Dorsch Beach, Rainbow Beach, Ha’penny Beach and a dozen other locations, tents began popping up one by one last Sunday, suddenly blooming in profusion like bougainvillea Thursday afternoon.
Music and the smell of food on the grill began to rise into the breezy, sunny air. For the next several days, a significant share of St. Croix’s population will be living outdoors, and many more will come to visit for the day before going home to sleep.
Some perennially popular camping sites are facing restrictions, such as the historic Salt River area; or simply vanishing, as big hotel projects begin to take root near the shore, which may be happening in Estate Betty’s Hope.
Juan “Kike” Ayala, Gloria Fredericks and dozens of their friends and family have been camping at Betty’s Hope for the past eight years. They have built a very elaborate makeshift campsite, dubbed “Camp Paraiso.” Its many amenities include a trailer with changing rooms, a shelter with a small slab and outdoor kitchen, a large freshwater tank raised up to roof height and even a generator.
When they came back this year, they found every entrance to the beach area blocked by TransCapital, the development company that has leased the land from the Port Authority to build a hotel and casino. After some phone calls and some work moving rocks out of the way, Ayala and Fredericks were able to get in and set up camp, but they don’t know yet what their status will be next year.
George Flores of Estate Whim and a small gaggle of media people were visiting Camp Paraiso Thursday morning, talking to Ayala, Fredericks and some of their friends.
“They’ve told us we will have to tear down the shelter and stick to tent camping,” said Ayala. “We’re hoping we can persuade them to leave the shelter awhile longer, even use it themselves for storage if they want.”
Fredericks said people flock from the big island of Puerto Rico to Vieques to camp over the holiday. Meanwhile many of her friends and relatives on Vieques fly over to St. Croix nearly every year to camp at Betty’s Hope with Fredericks.
“It’s a custom here. We did it one year, and we liked it a lot. We’ve looked forward to it every year for the last eight years,” said Fredericks. “Usually we have a large crowd from Puerto Rico in. We have a DJ and dance. The kids swim and play and we fish, play dominos and cook.”
“This is a very old practice,” said Flores. “I ran into it in the ‘30s as a child, so I know for sure it goes back more than 60 years.”
“Back in the day we didn’t have tents and generators,” said Flores, while everyone stuffed themselves on fresh johnnycakes made by Fredericks and roast bluefish caught by Ayala.
“We put down four sticks into the sand and laid coconut branches over them for a quick, homemade tent,” said Flores. “We were very poor people and made do with what we had at hand. We went to the beach for fish, farmed for provisions and drank water.”
Fueled by good food, good weather and good company, the Easter camping discussion veered off into debate over biblical history, stories in the news about Jesus’ family tomb and local politics. The press event had evolved into liming.
“Well, you know we have a law introduced by former Sen. Adelbert Bryan saying we have a right to access the beach,” said Flores. “The law says no matter how much money someone has, the people have a right to enjoy the seashore.”
Over at Salt River, new restrictions on overnight camping stick in the craw of some campers. For the first time this year, overnight camping is prohibited on the five acres that form a point off the shore and on the shorelines, which extend 50 feet back from the high tide mark.
People can still camp further back from the water and on neighboring private land. The Department of Planning and Natural Resources has announced they will be vigorously enforcing rules against littering, digging, brush cutting and driving near the major historical sites in the area.
A major historical landmark, Salt River is the site where Christopher Columbus landed on Nov. 14, 1493 and, with a skirmish, had the first-documented encounter between Europeans and the indigenous people of the Caribbean. The site is also a major pre-Columbian archeological site, with a Taino ceremonial ball court among its treasures.
Trash dumping, abandoned vehicles and a lack of preservation of the historical and archeological assets of the site led former Senate President Lorraine Berry and National Park Service Superintendent Joel Tutein to create a task force to restore and protect the site two years ago. This year’s restrictions come out of that task force.
For now there is an agreement between campers and the park service, although many campers feel they have been blamed for trash and debris left by others.
There will be plenty of time for debate and discussion in the months ahead. Meanwhile, the weather is great, there’s barbecue on the breeze and no work or school for most until Tuesday. It’s a good weekend to go camping.
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