March 1, 1998
by Susan Cocking
Quietly taking in nature -- canoeing down the
Thonotosassa, Fla -- Think canoeing is
boring? Take a short paddle on the Hillsborough River northeast of Tampa and
you'll think again.
In a 3-1/2 hour trip covering eight miles, guide
Joe Faulk and I had the following wildlife encounters:
An anhinga, its
wings sodden from fishing, toppled off a tree branch above us and splashed down
next to our canoe. (It swam quickly away--no doubt out of embarrassment.)
We glided silently to within three feet of two banded water snakes lazing side
by side, camouflaged on a fallen tree branch.
We passed scores of Suwannee
cooters and red-belly turtles sunning themselves on logs.
A chorus of
ospreys greeted us from a communal nest high atop a cypress tree.
been wading, we would have been up to our hind quarters in alligators. Reptiles
from five to 12 feet popped to the surface and dozes on the banks along our
A great blue heron speared and munched on a catfish 10 feet
away from us.
We saw a yellow-crowned night heron, red-shouldered hawk,
limpkin, and white ibis. We heard a Hallelujah chorus of barred owls, but
didn't see them. We also heard the raucous cry and cinder-block-like pounding
of the pileated woodpecker.
"My big focus is nature," said Faulk, who
operates Canoe Escape--a rental and guide business 12 miles northeast of Tampa.
"We really consider the canoe just the vehicle."
There's plenty of
nature to view on the Hillsborough as it flows 54 miles from Central Florida's
Green Swamp southwest into Tampa Bay. That's because nearly all the land from
the swamp to I-75 is undeveloped--most of it owned by the Southwest Florida
Water Management District and the state. The segment we paddled is part of
Wilderness Park--16,000 pristine acres leased by Hillsborough County from the
water management district.
Bird and animal watching are easily
accomplished on the Hillsborough because it flows at a leisurely half-knot pace
for much of its length. Canoeists need only paddle enough to maintain steerage
as they scan the banks. The only rapids are at Hillsborough State
Park--off-limits to Faulk's customers because of the potential for capsizing.
Most of what you'll see is on the surface, on the banks, or in the
tree. The Hillsborough is mostly tea-colored--stained by natural acids picked
up as the river flows through flatwoods and swamps. The clearest section is the
5-1/2 miles Crystal Springs Park run to U.S. 301. That segment is fed by 40
million gallons bubbling up daily from the earth's crust.
Jean, and son Brian have thrilled at seldom-seen wildlife antics in the six
years they've run their canoe business.
Like the time husband and
wife were paddling the remote "Seventeen Runs" section which fans out into
tributaries through a hardwood floodplain forest.
They marveled at a
majestic barred owl that swooped low across the river to perch next to its mate
on a tree branch above their heads. Marveled, that is, until the owls dropped a
crude joke on the unwitting passersby.
"They bent down and squawked
and cackled," Joe Faulk said.
On another trip, Faulk spotted a
bloated seven-foot gator floating dead. When he paddled over to investigate, an
11-footer popped up, clamped its ample jaws on the dead animal's midsection and
dragged it underwater.
"It was the most awesome display of alligator
power I've ever seen," Faulk said. "It was like a dog taking a tennis ball in
Brian Faulk once saw a gator trying to stuff a wild pig
it had killed under a log in the river.
Joe Faulk advises customers
to paddle quietly for best wildlife viewing. He spaces groups that rent his 55
canoes at intervals on the river so they won't disturb or bash into each other.
Radios, glass, Styrofoam, firearms and dogs ("we love 'em, but so do the
gators!") are prohibited.
Faulk's rules make sense: you don't need
artificial entertainment on the Hillsborough River. Nature's 24-hour show is
Self-Guided River Trips, Rentals
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9335 E. Fowler Avenue
Thonotosassa, FL 33592