The St. Petersburg Times
Sunday, April 17, 1994
by Dave Lowerre
Florida Canoe Trips: The Hillsborough
the waters of the Hillsborough River brings one eyeball-to-eyeball with gators,
storks, herons, otters and more
The swamp echoed the slow pounding of a pileated
woodpecker. Five alligators watched us as we floated past about 35 white ibis
and perhaps twice as many vultures. Little blue herons hunted breakfast at the
river's edge; anhingas dried their wings in the trees above. Turtles lined up
on logs. It was perfect; even the lilies were blooming. It seemed we were the
first humans to ever set paddle there.
But that wasn't possible. Even
though we would soon see an otter, kingfishers, storks and six types of herons,
we were only 12 miles from downtown Tampa. And we were floating the city's main
supply of drinking water, the Hillsborough River.
Although the river
eventually flows into the city, its upper reaches meander through forests
protected by the Southwest Florida Water Management District to ensure
plentiful drinking water.
Protected as well are the homes of deer,
opossum, snakes and a myriad of birds including storks, limpkins, owls and
eagles. Bass, perch and bream dart through the tea-colored river. Migrant
songbirds such as the phoebe and warblers use the forest as a winter home or as
a refueling stop on their long flights.
And it is all so easy to see.
Unlike some "opportunities" to view wildlife, no deprivations must be
endured to see the Hillsborough River. There is no three-mile hike, no 4 a.m.
alarm, no Disneyesque fee and no sweating.
Joe Faulk at Canoe Escape
has put together the best and most accessible wildlife-viewing experience in
Tampa Bay. It is a safari made to order for the harried or the unhurried, a
great place to take a first date or your in-laws. My sneakers never even got
Joe and his family wrestle the canoes and gear in and out of the
water and provide transportation to and from the river. If you've never been in
a canoe, the Faulks can teach you what to do--but practice may include ducking
brush and bumping into stumps. Joe's best advice: "If you manage to tip over
and all else fails, stand up. The river is only 3 feet deep."
Hillsborough River obligingly provides just enough current to slowly carry a
canoe through hardwood and cypress swamps. Only light paddling is needed to
maintain momentum and to steer through countless turns and occasionally narrow
Fresh water and toilets are available every two or three
hours at public parks maintained by Hillsborough County. The parks are good
spots to stretch one's legs or picnic, although there are many dry spots along
the river where a canoe can be beached.
Everyone see wildlife. The
slower you go, the more you see. Some large wading birds will allow a quiet
canoe to come quite close. Binoculars come in handy for watching ospreys and
other treetop species. Deer and otter are unusual, but turtles and alligators
are out whenever the air is warmer than the mud on the river's bottom.
Look for gators basking on any sunny river bank or log. They also float
unseen in streamside weed mats, a good reason for staying in the current.
Usually content to be observed from a reasonable distance, they slip into the
water if a canoe comes too close, their eyes and nose the last part to
The gators may be less than a foot long or longer than a
man. Some really big gators live up Trout Creek, opposite the take-out spot at
Trout Creek Park. It's worth a side trip and Joe Faulk will understand if you
are a little bit late.
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