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Content of Articles The Tampa Tribune
Saturday, August 12, 1995
by D. Quentin Wilber

Hillsborough River becomes a canoe trail

The Peace of the Hillsborough RiverThonotosassa - The upper reaches of the Hillsborough River, where wildlife thrives under verdant canopies of tropical vegetation and water flows from bubbly springs, are now an official Florida Canoe Trail.

State officials made the designation Wednesday, joining 31 miles of the river from Crystal Springs in Pasco County to Riverhills Park in Temple Terrace with 36 other Florida trails.

Last year, nearly 20,000 people meandered down the river past snakes and alligators and under birds and butterflies.

Those numbers likely will rise thanks to the new designation, which will allow the river to be added to numerous guidebooks and brochures that promote Florida's other canoe trails.

Supporters of the trail say the state finally is recognizing the river for what it is.

"It's a beautiful and natural resource," says Tom Dyer, chairman of the Hillsborough River Greenways Task Force--a public/private partnership designed to protect the river's ecosystem.

Dyer, also vice-president of Two Rivers Ranch, which owns six miles of land along the river and Crystal Springs, says the trail adds an extra layer of protection. "The state recognizes the value of the river and will have to consider the designation before they can condemn and build on the land."

For centuries--from Seminole Indians and Spanish explorers to ecological zoologists and bass fisherman--men and women have paddled this long, winding waterway that supplies 75 percent of Tampa's drinking water.

A few miles west of U.S. 301 in Hillsborough River State Park, the river has narrowed and hardened with the passing of millennia, creating some of Florida's fastest and only rapids. The smooth water crashes into the jagged limestone outcrops, shooting foam and bubbles downstream.

"It's not a good idea to go through those rapids," says assistant park manager Dennis Cap. "The rocks are sharp and will tear the bottom off your boat. A lot of people come here to listen to the water rush by."

A few miles past the rapids, the water slows. In its glassy brown surface, the outer world's reflection mingles with its own oblong and circular shadows.

On this August day, drifting with the slow current, Joe and Jean Faulk ease their paddles between fallen trees and grasping, outstretched branches.

Owners of Canoe Escape, Inc., the only full-time canoe outfitter on the river, they rent their shallow boats and kayaks for two, four, and six hours.

Four years ago, they started the rental business and now send 15,000 adventurers a year through 20 miles of the river, from swamps to sparkling springs.

The Faulks leisurely float down run No. 1., from John B. Sargeant Park to Old Morris Bridge Park, in two canoes. This trip displays the most wildlife, including gators, turtles, birds, spiders, snakes, fish and -- if you're lucky -- a turkey.

But with the river so swollen from incessant downpours and the banks under four feet of water, they say most of the animals have gone elsewhere.

After a particularly bad storm last week, trees collapsed and blocked several runs downstream.

"I had to come out here, wading up to my neck, and cut that off," says Joe Faulk, 48, pointing at a broken and battered tree lying across the river's 10-foot span. "I cut it just below the water line and left the rest there. I cut just enough to let canoes through. We want it to look natural."

There are no slashes or jagged limbs on this tree--only a small tunnel under the crisscrossing boughs.

"We make our livelihood out here," Jean Faulk, 47, says as she pushes her paddle against the trunk to wedge past. "We consider ourselves its stewards."

A few yards away, a pair of gleaming eyes and a green snout gently break the water's surface like a periscope. They move furtively and soon dip under a log, leaving a trail of bubbles behind.

Three squawking white ibis burst forth from the dense foliage and flap their way to the tree tops.

Skirting across the placid tea-brown water, spawning the river's only ripples, a tiny whirligig beetle darts between floating leaves and twigs.

In the distance, sprawled in a patch of tall grass, its nose shadowed by the wide roots and branches of a cypress tree, an alligator slowly turns its head and yawns.

"It's so peaceful out here," Jean Faulk says. "People are trying to do too much. They're stressed out. Being out here is better than a power nap."

A warm breeze passes under the arched dark-green canopy, rustling leaves to polite applause."

"With the designation," Jean Faulk says, "More people will know about the river and they will become more aware of it."

Nearly all the riverfront land from Crystal Springs to Temple Terrace is publicly owned and protected.

And now, this long and diverse river--which pumps nearly 65 million gallons of water a day from its beginnings in the Green Swamp to its mouth at Tampa Bay--will join the 36 other canoe trails, totaling more than 100 miles in Florida.

But to the people who have fought for the designation, the river is more than facts and statistics. It is the twists and turns, the shadows and sun, the fish and spiders.

They say that people like themselves are seeking nature in a world of amusement parks and concrete palaces.

"Ecotourism is becoming a big thing now," says Karen Kuhlmann, an administrator for the state's office of Greenways and Trails, the department that made the final recommendation for the river. "People have all been to Walt Disney World. Now they want to go canoeing in the wilderness. They want to see the beauty of nature."

Only a few miles from downtown near Old Morris Bridge, a baby alligator suns itself on a short log. Its long yellow-striped tail dangles and kisses the murky water a few inches below.

On the other side, wrapped tightly around a thatch of weeds and twigs, a brown water snake flicks its tongue at several unwelcome visitors.

"It's amazing that you're to close to Tampa, so close to the wilderness," Jean Faulk says as she paddles her canoe against the current.

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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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