Back in my newspaper days, when someone from out of town joined The Tampa Tribune management team, a common practice during introductory meetings was for the veterans to recommend what the newcomer should be sure to do in the region. My suggestion was always the same: canoe the northern Hillsborough River. The experience is a revelation.
Most residents probably know the Hillsborough River provides much of Tampa’s drinking water and are familiar with the river that snakes through Temple Terrace and Tampa, with the delightful Riverwalk along its last two miles. The urban section of the river – despite development, runoff and sometimes sluggish flow – provides a natural refuge in the heart of the bustling community.
However, fewer people – particularly visitors – know that within a half-hour’s drive from downtown Tampa, one can be paddling on a wilderness river where alligators sun themselves on fallen trees, otters frolic along the bank, and roseate spoonbills swirl their bills for minnows in the shallows. The limpkin’s eerie cry likely will be heard.
Countless birds, from red-shouldered hawks to warblers, can be seen along the banks. Deer, wild hogs, bobcats and other critters inhabit the adjacent woods.
And there are snakes. Lots of snakes. Most of those seen along the river are harmless water snakes, but occasionally one might encounter venomous water moccasins with their distinct white “cottonmouth.”
Tales of moccasins falling from trees into boats usually are a case of mistaken identity. The heavy-bodied pit-vipers are not known for slithering up trees, while the slender water snakes frequently do.
But once years ago, as lifelong friend Derryl Boddiford and I started to paddle under a fallen tree arching over the river, Derryl spotted a fat moccasin coiled atop it. It was too late to reverse course and we franticly crunched onto the canoe’s bottom as our momentum took us underneath.
Cottonmouths have a reputation for being vile-tempered, but this one, perhaps more amused than agitated, ignored our antics. We became much more attentive afterward.
On that same trip north of what is now the John B. Sargeant Conservation Park off U.S. Highway 301 in north Hillsborough, a gator that seemed nearly as long as the narrow river’s width slid off the bank, becoming invisible in the dark, tannic water. We could see its bubbles going underneath our canoe and then down the river.
We don’t know if was “Old Joe,” the legendary 12-foot gator who inhabited that forbidding, maze-like Seventeen Runs section of the river, but it was the biggest gator we’d ever seen.
We still talk about that trip.
(The “Ballad of Old Joe” by the late Tampa Bay Times Outdoors Writer Terry Tomlin is a wonderful account of the fabled reptile. It can be found in the “Rivers of the Green Swamp: An Anthology.”)
In the nearly 40 years since then, I’ve canoed and visited the Hillsborough many times, and it is virtually as wild, although it gets more visitors now, especially on weekends.
You may hear cars on distant roads, and, alas, see some litter, though most paddlers are conscientious, and many pick up whatever trash they can reach. But otherwise you might feel as if you are paddling through pioneer Florida.
The Seminoles Indians once lived along the Hillsborough, and the Seminole Wars are a part of its history. The Hillsborough River State Park on U.S. 301 maintains Fort Foster, a replica of a fort that once stood watch over the river.
Seeing all the cypress trees along the river, it is hard to believe that logging operations took many of its majestic bald cypress trees more than a century ago. Cypress trees can live for several thousand years, and their wood was prized for its resistance to termites and decay. Remnants of a logging tram road and trestle are near Morris Bridge Conservation Park.
The river has largely recovered and still has an abundance of cypress trees, though not the giants that were said to be several hundred feet tall. It illustrates how nature, given a chance, often can recover, albeit slowly, from assaults.
The Florida Aquarium Associate Animal Curator Eric Hovland has been paddling the Hillsborough more than 20 years. He reminded me that some threats are subtler than clear-cutting: “You can see alligators, otters and all kinds of natural Florida wildlife along the river,” he said. “But you might also see a nutria, and other introduced species not native to the river,” including elephant ear, the air potato plant and the Plecostomus, a suckermouth catfish.
Such exotics, when released into the wild, can threaten native species. The nutria, for instance, is a large South American rodent that escaped from captivity in Louisiana in the 1930s and has been steadily spreading south. It has an insatiable appetite for the vegetation that sustain wetlands.
Hovland stressed that seeing the exotics on the river should not diminish the enjoyment of the river, nor make residents feel guilty if they enjoy “cool ornamental plants” or exotic fish at home. He had a Plecostomus in his childhood aquarium. But seeing the troublesome exotics should remind everyone of the need to be extremely cautious with non-native plants and animals, which never should be allowed to escape into the wild.
Still, even with those unwelcomed visitors, the Hillsborough remains a remarkably natural waterway.
If you want to paddle the upper stretch of the river, you have plenty of choices. Because of rock outcroppings and fallen trees, the river north of the Hillsborough River State Park off U.S. Highway 301 is not recommended. The park itself has some Florida-style “rapids” of rock outcroppings.
However, the short – about 2.5 miles – trip between the park and Dead River Conservation Park is scenic and usually easy paddle.
South of Dead River is the Seventeen Run section of the Hillsborough, which can be virtually unpassable during dry months and a flooded labyrinth during the rainy ones. Becoming lost is always a possibility, and some luckless adventurers reportedly have spent miserable nights swatting mosquitoes and listening to gators bellow.
The treacherous run ends more than four miles downriver just above Sargeant Park. In contrast, the four-mile trip from Sargeant Park to Morris Bridge Conservation Park showcases the river’s wonders without the toil and confusion.
About four miles downriver from Morris Bridge is Trout Creek Conservation Park, where canoeists travel under a flood-control dam structure designed to divert the river flow to avoid flooding downstream.
During the stretch between Morris Bridge and Trout Creek, you will pass Nature’s Classroom. Each year, Hillsborough County public school sixth graders spend several days at the Classroom learning first-hand about the river.
Lettuce Lake Park, off Fletcher Avenue, is roughly another three miles away. While the Hillsborough loses its wildness as it flows south, it remains a striking, if not pristine, natural sanctuary, even in the heart of Tampa.
Except for the state park, the upper river parks are run by Hillsborough County’s Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department, though most of the land is owned by the Southwest Florida Water Management District. Lettuce Lake Park was bought with a Hillsborough County bond issue that was used as matching funds for a U.S. Department of Interior grant. All the parks have ramps for paddlers.
The private firm Canoe Escape operates out of Sargeant Park, renting canoes and kayaks and providing self-guided and guided trips on the upper river. It also offers special trips, such as nighttime paddles. It has been in business 20 years, and its guides display an impressive knowledge of, and concern for, the river. Canoes and kayaks can be rented at Lettuce Lake Park.
If you have never been on the upper Hillsborough, take a few hours to paddle a stretch and lose yourself in the sights, sounds and smells of a wild Florida river.
As Hovland said, “I have canoed and kayaked all over the world, and the Hillsborough remains my favorite. We are doing a lot of things right.”
(More about what we’ve done right for the Hillsborough River in the next Water Stories.)
By Joe Guidry, former opinion editor, The Tampa Tribune