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canoeing and kayaking near Tampa, Florida
Content of Articles The Cincinnati Enquirer
Travel Section
Sunday, October 11, 1998
by Betsa Marsh

Paddle Into Paradise

The Travel Magazine ArticleGlide back in time to untouched Florida on Tampa's Hillsborough River. Canoe through Spanish moss and cypress trees in a 16,000-acre preserve where, in the peak period, you can see 2,000 ibis, herons and egrets in two hours. And, did we mention alligators?

We made all the predictable jokes, twanging the theme to "Deliverance" and foreseeing ourselves as alligator bait. Then we picked up our paddles, shoved our canoe out into the stream and headed back in time to wild, natural Florida.

There we were, two jokers setting out for a morning row down Tampa's Hillsborough River. And sure enough, there was the obligatory man-eating alligator, all 12 inches of his baby self, taking the sun on a fallen log.

Our "Wild Kingdom" sighting was laughable, after all those canoeists-as-canapes jokes, until we remembered that where there are babies in the wild, there are usually parents nearby.

"There are probably 115 alligators on the river bottom," predicted Joe Faulk, president of Tampa's Canoe Escape. At the river's deepest point, that was no more than five feet beneath our canoe, and less than an inch from the innumerable fallen timbers that snagged our progress. Cold comfort on a hot Florida morning.

"This is not a Tarzan movie; the alligators won't come after us," he said. They stay right where they are, if it's a good spot, or slide down into the river to hide from us."

"Alligators are opportunistic feeders, and they don't really go out hunting. They wait until something comes within a foot or two, and then they grab it."

Like, say, a canoeist's leg. I will gleefully tip over in the Little Miami to cool off on a steamy day, knowing the worst that can happen may be a cut from a floating Coke can. But even when we were wedged high on a submerged Florida cypress log, rocking to get free, neither of us would plop a foot into the water to push off. Gain some leverage, lose a limb.

The alligators add a frisson of excitement to the Hillsborough River run through a 16,000-acre protected preserve, Hillsborough County's Wilderness Park System. Our river set-in point is 30 miles from Tampa Bay, in a quiet cove dripping with Spanish moss. The cypress trees have leached tannic acid into the water, darkening it, but it's surprisingly pure. "Seventy percent of Tampa's drinking water comes from this river," Mr. Faulk said.

The alligators seem to love it, as do the native turtles and birds. This is not the swan ride at Disney World," said Mr. Faulk, who started Canoe Escape eight years ago. "It's a natural ride, so there's no swimming or radios."

Swimming? You couldn't pay a Floridian to put a toe into fresh water, renowned as home to the state's alligators. But 30 percent of Canoe Escapists are from out of state and perhaps haven't made the gator-river connection yet.

Many arrive in the fall, well-timed for great birding on the Hillsborough. In the peak period, from November to February, canoeists might see 2,000 ibis, herons and egrets on a two-hour ride, said Mr. Faulk.

"When conditions are right, this is the best five miles of wildlife viewing in Florida," he said.

On our paddle-and-push ricochet down the river, we saw scores of birds among the cypresses and mangroves. A glossy back anhinga, one of the few water birds without waterproof feathers, was spreading his wings to dry in the sun after a bit of spearfishing. Great blue herons and egrets were scouting the water for snails and mussels. Through a veil of Spanish moss, we could see a flock of brilliant white ibis in a clearing beyond.

Swallowtail butterflies dipped down to greet us and guide the way, somehow sensing we were less than pros. The Hillsborough is a gentle run, with the current hitting a "whopping 1-1/2 miles per hour," Mr. Faulk says.

The occasional bird call is the only sound heard for long stretches of river--unless you count the snapping of alligator jaws we swore we heard.


MORE ARTICLES
Canoe Trip Glides Through the Real Florida
Florida, My Florida
Tampa Canoe for an Hour or Two
Canoe Ride Catches Wildlife Up Close
Wild Times on a Tame River
Paddle Away from all Your Troubles
Florida Canoe Trips: The Hillsborough
Taking a Glide on the Wild Side of Florida
Hillsborough River Becomes a Canoe Trail
A Peaceable Kingdom Awaits Those Who Step Into a Canoe
Quietly Taking In Nature
Paddle Into Paradise

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