The Sunday Gazette
by Bill Rice
Canoe ride catches
wildlife up close
Tampa - The best ride I ever had in Florida wasn't at Walt Disney
World or Busch Gardens. It was in the front end of a canoe on a 4.5-mile
stretch of the Hillsborough River a few miles outside of Tampa.
Expertly guiding the craft as it slipped beneath moss-covered oaks on the
narrow, twisting waterway was Joe Faulk, the owner of Canoe Escape.
mom-and-pop outfit located on East Fowler Ave. just outside of the city, Canoe
Escape can put visitors in touch with "real Florida" with the swish of a
On our leisurely trip down the river I saw more alligators
lounging on mud banks and turtles snoozing on logs than I'd seen in my entire
And the birds were incredible.
It seemed that every
time we rounded a bend a different kind was waiting--black-crowned night
herons, ibises, blue herons, limpkins and anhingas.
The blue herons,
in particular, seemed to welcome the approaching canoe, and they would
sometimes stretch out their necks and cock their heads as if they were waiting
for the click of a camera.
As we paddled, Faulk talked about the
"We could do this every day of the year and see something
different," he said. "This is one of the best wildlife rivers in Florida and we
don't sell canoeing, we sell nature. Our customers are people who want
Like the sight of an anhinga perching on a limb
and spreading its wings to dry after a head-first lunge into the river for a
The anhinga is sometimes called a snake bird because when it
swims its body is underwater and its slender neck and head resemble a snake's.
Faulk has eyes like a hawk and at one point he spotted an owl high in
a tree. I could hardly make it out even after he pointed to it because its
color was so similar to the bark of the tree.
My guide pointed out
apple snail eggs on the bottom of tree trunks along the water. The snails, he
said, are the primary food of the limpkin, a bird on the endangered species
list that travels with a jerky walk along the shore looking for food.
Endangered or not, we saw quite a few.
We also saw many ibis, white
birds that roost on the river at night and commute to the ocean during the day
to look for food.
During the winter, Faulk said, it's possible to see
5,000 or so ibis in a day on the river.
As we skimmed over a huge,
submerged cypress log, a small alligator swam in front of our canoe and
proceeded downstream in front of us.
He seemed to be leading our
canoe and Faulk said that was something he'd never seen before.
Hillsborough River begins 54 miles from Tampa Bay in the Green Swamp area of
Pasco and Polk counties. It has five main tributaries--Blackwater Creek, Flint
Creek, New River, Trout Creek, and Cypress Creek--and it receives 40 million
gallons of water daily from Crystal Springs.
The appearance and
character of the river change as it flows from the Green Swamp toward Tampa.
At its spring-fed source it tends to be clearer and less desirable
for alligators and turtles.
As it flows, however, it becomes a
blackwater river, with tannic and humic acids in the flatwoods and swamps
giving the dark tea color that alligators and turtles prefer for hiding. The
lazy flow of the river never gets much faster, even after a heavy rain, Faulk
said, because as the volume increases the water spreads out into the cypress
swamps. Alligators contribute to this desirable water distribution because
their favorite paths are natural channels for the water.
point, Faulk said there were a lot of wild pigs in the area.
one of his customers had actually seen an alligator grab a wild pig and pull it
Faulk felt that was a real once-in-a-lifetime experience
and after thinking about it I had to agree that it was.
for the pig.
The river, which furnishes about 75 percent of Tampa's
drinking water, runs through 20 miles of Hillsborough County's Wilderness Park
System and it is protected by the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
Faulk runs the only full-service canoe business on the Hillsborough.
Canoe Escape offers three basic trips on the river. The first, which
we took, is a 4.5 mile trip from Sargeant Park to the Morris Bridge Park. The
second is a four-mile paddle from Morris Bridge to Trout Creek Park, while the
third is a five-mile stretch of the river from Trout Creek Park to Rotary Park.
It is possible to combine the first two or the last two legs or
paddle the entire 13.5 miles.
Another trip of five miles is possible
from Crystal Springs, the source of the river.
Customers can take as
much time as they want because you don't pay by the hour.
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9335 E. Fowler Avenue
Thonotosassa, FL 33592