The Houston Chronicle
April 4, 1993
by George Rosenblatt
Canoe for an hour or two
Tampa, Fla. -- Whether you like to rough it the easy way or take
it easy the hard way, a small, family-run outfit near here may have just the
right idea for you.
It's a canoe trip down the Hillsborough River.
You need not be an experienced paddler, nor especially athletic. All
you need is some curiosity, a little sense of adventure, a few bucks and half a
day to enjoy them all in a piece of primeval Florida.
yourself into the capable hands of the Faulks -- Joseph, Jean and their son,
Brian -- who own and operate Canoe Escape, Inc. in Thonotosassa, about a dozen
miles northeast of downtown Tampa.
Canoeing was mainly a hobby for
Joseph Faulk until last year, when he checked out of a two-decade hotel career
and started paddling his occupation in a different direction.
years in the hotel business is enough for anyone," Faulk says.
Escape is his vehicle for combining his experience in the hospitality industry
with his love for the outdoors.
"We see canoeing as a vehicle to see
the wilderness side of Florida, and the canoe is just the way to get there," he
adds. "It's kind of a throwback to what people came to Florida for 30 years
The man is too modest.
On a trip as short as two
hours, participants can see Florida as it likely appeared 30 centuries ago.
One of the amazing qualities of even the simplest itinerary is how
quickly and completely nature captures your imagination and drains off your
Trip No. 1, for example, involves about two hours of
paddling to cover the four miles from Sargeant Park to Morris Bridge Park.
Within the first two minutes, your canoe is gliding through a thick, green
canopy of near-tropical foliage, funneled out of the daily grind onto a swampy,
lake like variation of the Elysian Fields--a primeval paradise of dark water
patched with water hyacinths.
Roadways, engine noises and other
intrusions of civilization fade abruptly, yielding to the water and vegetation.
Even this early in the trip, it is difficult to envision the river as the
principal water supply for a major city.
With every stroke of the
paddle, you seem to drift father back in time, beyond the 1769 naming of the
river for a British nobleman, beyond the advent of the Spanish who called the
river El Rio de San Julian de Arriaga, beyond the Seminoles who called it
Lockcha-popka-chiska, beyond even preceding tribes who called it Mocoso.
Today you may well encounter a Briton or a Spaniard on the Hillsborough,
as Faulk estimates that up to 40 percent of his weekday traffic comes from
outside the United States. And maybe you'll meet a Seminole or other Indian.
But you are far more likely to see alligators, either basking on a fallen log
or periscoping their bulging eyes through the water that masks the rest of
Judicious, gentle paddling of a canoe can let you drift
remarkably close to these creatures, which have likely changed far less than
has their habitat over the millennia. But judicious is the key word, for when
it comes to navigating near gators, a fool and his limbs are soon parted.
Another key memorandum for wilderness wanderers is that peaceable presence
is a cornerstone of coexistence. In other words, don't bug the beasts or the
birds and they will likely not but--or bite--you.
That rule leaves a
lot of latitude for each species to observe the other. And there is a lot to
observe along the Hillsborough.
Leaving the broad expanse of
waterborne foliage, canoeists paddle into the much narrower main channel of the
river. At some points the river appears nearly narrow enough to jump
across--with or without a booster bounce off one of the sandbars that
periodically reduce the depth to mere inches.
In the shallows, the
water appears almost crystal clear. But at other, presumably deeper points
along the way, the water exudes a sinister murk.
The blackwater, as
it is termed, resembles brewed tea in several respects, from color to the fact
that it represents nature's equivalent of infusing the leaves, bark and other
vegetable matter that falls or grows into it.
In counterpoint, the
air holds little for the untrained nose beyond a sort of muggy purity, and
little for the untrained ear, save a delicious silence punctuated by a random
The big beneficiaries of the trip are your eyes, for they
see much that is unexpected in various ways.
Along the banks, they
see cypress knees bigger and more abundant than preconceptions anticipate.
In some of the shallows, they spot seashells that appear to betray a big
clambake, but actually occur naturally in the fresh water--too tiny for human
appetites, but just right for birds.
Up a tree or up a tiny stream,
they see birds--sometimes rare or endangered birds, like a heron or an egret,
its white plumage almost incandescent in the gray-green light of a botanical
And, or course, sometimes they see something they would
rather not. While absorbing the primeval ambience, one canoeist dropped his
paddle. His partner, riding forward, passed his paddle back to facilitate
guiding the canoe until the lost paddle floated alongside.
paddle-dropper headed the canoe into the tangled, leafless branches of a fallen
tree. The impact was so gentle, it didn't ruffle a scale on the cottonmouth
moccasin stretched maybe four feet along one of the branches, its head
addressing the nearby bank.
"Don't you want to take a picture?" asked
The response took the form of a question
answering a question:
"Do you want to tell the nearest emergency room
staff what possessed you to gargle the wide end of a canoe paddle?"
In that enlightened context, the canoe back-paddled to achieve maximum distance
from the snake in minimum time.
The presence of such reptiles is a
fact of life along the river. Canoeists may see none, or they may see many.
Seeing the area's wild denizens of whatever species is one of the whole points
of doing the trip--although, to reiterate, healthy respect is a key to seeing
Respect for nature and curiosity about it are among the few
things a participant need to bring along.
What you don't know about
canoeing the Faulks will teach you--and it will be just enough to show you a
side of Florida often lost in the shadow of manufactured amusement.
The real, natural, wild side.
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