Sunday, October 11, 1998
Paddle Into Paradise
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
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.
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.
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