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canoeing and kayaking near Tampa, Florida
Content of Articles The Toronto Star
Saturday, March 4, 1995
by Joanna Ebbutt

Taking a glide on the wild side of Florida: Gentle pace lets you enjoy rare birds up close

A sit-on-top kayak on the HillsboroughThe only sounds were the chattering of birds, the occasional plop as a fish leapt from the water, and the soothing swish of our paddles. Canoeing down the Hillsborough River, through the almost 6,500 hectacres of Hillsborough County Wilderness Park, we were able to view the wild side of Florida up close . . . really close: alligators lolling in the sun, wild hogs and deer scavenging amongst the vegetation on the bank, green-backed turtles, and rare birds such as the white ibis, the endangered limpkin searching for increasingly rare apple snails, and the great blue heron. Naturalists, birders, and avid canoeists all get their kicks along this stretch of river.

Remarkably, this affordable adventure, organized by a small company called Canoe Escape, begins only 18 km from downtown Tampa. Even novices aren't intimidated, as the river is gently paced. Almost three-quarters of Canoe Escape's customers are first, second, or third-timers, and the company makes sure that customers know exactly what they are doing before a canoe is taken out.

The trips are divided into segments, so you can rent a canoe for only two hours (although by the time you've stopped for a picnic, or to photograph some wild hyacinths, or simply to absorb the beauty of your surroundings, the two hours easily extends itself), or for up to eight hours.

When visitors arrive at Canoe Escape's rental shop they are taken by van to the starting point. Maps for each segment of the trip are handed out, along with specific directions such as "if you take the right hand turn down Flint Creek, you might see a lot of 'gators," or "once you reach the old railway trestle, you're only 10 minutes from Morris Bridge Park." The cardinal rule is to keep to the widest body of moving water. Canoe Escape's staff continually check the various routes so they can warn you in case there's a fallen tree in a particular spot, and if the water is very high, they will color tag the trees on either side of the river in order to keep the channel clearly marked.

Before launching the canoes, everyone receives paddling tips, with particular emphasis on the "J" stroke for the person sitting in the stern, and once you set off, you are watched very carefully to make sure you've grasped the basics!

Despite the faraway feel to the Hillsborough River, it supplies about 75 percent of Tampa's drinking water. Nonetheless, a trip along the river is a reminder of the reasons people came to Florida, long before it was discovered by Walt Disney and others of his ilk: the lure of its natural flora and fauna, and the chance to escape the madding crowd.

The river is around two metres deep in most places, and the brown waters, colored by the tannic acid from decaying leaves, are virtually bug-free.

Sightings along the river depend upon the season. When the water level is lowest, in mid-summer, you have to watch for logs more carefully, but you are more likely to spot mammals such as otter, deer and wild hogs, all drawn to the main river as the streams and tributaries further inland dry up.

The best time for birding enthusiasts is during winter when the water is low, as many birds enjoy "working in the mud" in their search for supper. As well, you'll get to see migratory birds such as the warblers on their way to and from South America, and the great blue herons. The rare white ibis is most likely to be seen when the water is at its highest, since it hangs around the water's edge, often until the end of December.

A thick canopy of oak and cypress trees covers the river for much of the year, but come winter, it's a different story. Between November, when the trees lose their leaves, and mid-March, the river has a completely different look, and wildlife spotting is somewhat easier. However, most of the year you'll get to see alligators, although they are inclined to skulk at the bottom when the skies are overcast.

Although weekends are busiest, Canoe Escape always ensures that there's no crowding on this waterway. With reservations, you are virtually guaranteed a real, back-to-nature experience. According to Joe Faulk, co-owner of Canoe Escape: "People come to enjoy the quiet and the serenity. It's good for the soul!" And after a few hours on the river, it's hard not to agree.

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