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canoeing and kayaking near Tampa, Florida
Content of Articles The Boston Sunday Globe
Travel Section
November 19, 1995
by Linda McKenzie-Stewart

A peaceable kingdom awaits those who step into a canoe

A Delicate ManeuverTampa, FL - It's hardly a 10-minute drive from Tampa's bustling Busch Gardens, abrim with hilarity, music and eager crowds, to the silent beauty and solitude of the Hillsborough River, venue for Joe Faulk's Canoe Escape.
To paddle one of Joe's 17-foot Old town canoes along the glassy black waters of the Hillsborough, with only flocks of waterfowl for company, is to enjoy an experience borrowed from a long-ago age. Not a car or truck to be seen or heard. Not a roof or chimney in sight. The river flows through cypress swamps and impenetrable woodlands. Not even the most zealous hiker would manage more than a step or two, except for a few places where remnants of abandoned logging trails offer half-hearted route to nowhere. Under the canopy of oaks, bald cypress, maples and cabbage palms exists a peaceable kingdom inhabited by deer, bobcats, raccoons, possums, foxes and a few wild hogs, direct descendants of the porkers brought by the Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto when he arrived in Tampa Bay in 1539.

Overhead, it's another story. The trees are alive with birds. Huge snowy flocks of ibis, egrets, and white herons fly ahead of your canoe, coming to light 50 feet downstream in the trees. Keep paddling. But no sooner do you come within a few feet of their perches than they're off again, swooshing on ahead. Their love calls and squabbles, their gossip and exclamations, a gentle sighing of the wind and the quiet slap-slap of water against the canoe . . . these are the only sounds in the whole world. Atop the mangrove roots, along the muddy banks, in sandy shallows, alligators are strewn like cords of firewood. Keeping them company are the turtles--Florida cooters and red-bellied sliders.

In the four years since Joe Faulk and his wife, Jean, began Canoe Escape, hundreds of people, some experienced canoeists, some rank first-timers, have discovered the delights of the river, a watery corridor of unspoiled natural beauty. The Hillsborough rises in the Green Swamp, about 10 miles west of Disney World. It flows 53 miles west-southwest across central Florida at about a half-mile an hour to empty into Tampa Bay. Along the way, it's fed by five tributaries and numerous springs that enable it to deliver some 65 million gallons of fresh water daily to the city of Tampa.

One of the nicest ways to "do the river" is to coax Joe to leave his command post at 9335 East Fowler Ave., just east of Route 75, and come along with you. Both he and Jean are expert birdwatchers as well as dedicated chroniclers of the river and all its wildlife. I put in recently with Joe at Sargeant Park. Joe's Canoe Escape trips use some 20 miles of the Hillsborough River, and along those 20 miles there are five landings where canoes are easily put in or taken out of the water. As we glided silently downstream, he introduced me to its landmarks, all of them as seemingly familiar to him as the back of his hand. We passed a pair of nesting egrets in a tangle of underbrush suspended by tree limbs over the water. We paused to listen for telltale peeps. As yet, no hatchlings. "Another couple of days," Joe said. But just a few more sweeps and we were abreast of a clutch of baby herons, tiny squash balls of black feathers, busily attended by their snow-white parents.

I pointed out to Joe a turtle on a flat rock. "Do you see his friend? he asked me. I looked hard and saw nothing. But with his paddle, Joe reached and almost but not quiet touched a brown vine wrapped around a dead limb just above the turtle. "It's a brown water snake," he said. "Harmless." He spotted other snakes, perfectly camouflaged and invisible to any eye less expert than his. We passed an enchanted prince, cleverly disguised as a bullfrog. He sat on a half-submerged log, and as we passed he gave a couple of deep-throated burps.

Wind, lightning and flood all have their way with the river, sending mighty trees crashing across its waters, washing boulders from the banks to midstream, forming islands even as it sweeps other islands away. The river is at its highest in the autumn, and has been known to rise as much as 5 feet, as proved by the dark high-water marks on tree trunks. Water hyacinths and a pretty broad-leafed plant called spatterdock grow in green profusion, often clogging a canoe's right of way. Pennywort, another pretty green weed that looks like a delectable watercress, also spreads across the water's surface like deep, lush carpeting. A couple times a year, Joe and his 20-year-old son, Brian, walk-wade the river with machete, hatchet, and saw. They make no effort to clear away all obstructions and probably couldn't even if they tried. Instead, they seek only to cut a right of way so that a canoe can pass safely. It's back-breaking work, but the result is that anyone can safely venture forth on the river and paddle without ever getting hung up in a tangle of fallen limbs or sunken logs.

Canoe Escape imposes only a few rules: no glass, no Styrofoam, no firearms, no dogs (always a favorite of alligators) and no radios. Joe and Jean insist that the only way to see the river's wildlife is in relative quiet. When either of them speaks, it's in low tones, soothing and wholly unalarming even to the red-winged blackbirds, the owl or the mourning doves perched just above their heads on the palmettos along the banks.

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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Canoe Escape, Inc.
9335 E. Fowler Avenue
Thonotosassa, FL 33592
ph: 813-986-2067
e-mail: info@canoeescape.com