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Posts Tagged ‘Hillsborough River’

Florida rivers are amazingly beautiful, mystical, and fun, and after paddling them for over ten years, I feel a touch of guilt selecting favorites. However, I admit it! There are those to which I would return more quickly than others. So, here goes.

Fisheating Creek. I have paddled Fisheating Creek more than any other river—at least four times. If you want an awesome Florida wilderness paddling experience, Fisheating Creek is your waterway. It originates in a swamp in Highlands County and flows south, then east, into Lake Okeechobee.

Entering the Cypress Swamp

I paddled from Burnt Bridge, a four-hour (eight miles) ever-changing paddling experience, and ended at the Fisheating Creek Outpost. (Longer trips are available.) The paddles begins in the wide river, tall cypress dripping with Spanish moss and air plants on each side, but within thirty minutes, you are lured into the cooler, darker waters of the swamp, twisting and turning through the cypress trees and their knobby knees as you pass gators, herons, egrets, anhinga, and so much more! Then, just as quickly, you emerge from the swamp into the river of grassy banks. If the water is low enough, you may even be able to pull up on a sand bank for a stretch and a snack before heading into the swamp once again.

My go-to outpost for Fisheating Creek was the Fisheating Creek Outpost with friendly faces, great attitudes, but kayaks that could use some attention. However, they are happy to drop you with your own kayak if you choose.

Withlacoochee River South. I love Withlacoochee River South and wish it was closer to me. A Native American term, Withlacoochee means “little big water” or “crooked river.” I have experienced both the little and the big of it—paddling it twice, once during the dry and once during the rainy season. I started from two different locations, but basically the same route—just one further into the swamp.

The Withlacoochee Dressed in Browns and Grays

This waterway is a “must paddle” if you haven’t yet. Picture yourself paddling down these dark, cool waters—beautiful cypress, red maple, and live oak along the riverbanks providing shade from the hot Florida sun. The water quietly twists and turns as it moves slowly from the Green Swamp to the Gulf. You hear nothing except the occasional splash of a turtle or gator or the calling of a bird. During low water levels, you spy ibis, vultures, herons, anhinga, cormorants, and egrets along the banks, as they enjoy the tranquil waters and their only slightly interrupted day with you floating by. During the rainy season, the water floods into the forest and through the trees creating magical, picturesque reflections, a beautiful backdrop to your serene paddle.

My go-to outpost for Withlacoochee River South was Withlacoochee RV Park and Canoe Rental.

Hillsborough River. When I describe my most amazing river paddles to people, I always include the Hillsborough River—which is why I find it unbelievable that I have paddled it only once. Why???

Clear Waters of the Hillsborough

Like the Withlacoochee, the Hillsborough originates in the Green Swamp. Its clear waters, fed largely by Crystal Springs, twist and turn for fifty-four miles west to empty into Tampa Bay.

This river is awesome! If awards were given for the most gator and bird sightings, Hillsborough would win. Picture this: in a four-hour paddle between Sargeant Park and Trout Creek Park (other trips available), you spy somewhere between fifty and one hundred gators—all looking very comfortable in their environment regardless of the intrusion. You feel as if you have entered a bird paradise, spotting more species of birds on this river than any other—egrets, herons, limpkins, roseate spoonbills, woodpeckers, wood storks, and ibis. Osprey dive; otters frolic; turtles sun, and you float through it all like a smooth ride at Disney World. Nature is in harmony, your paddle serene, peaceful, and delightful.

My go-to outpost for the Hillsborough River was Canoe Escape in Thonotosassa.

It seems pretty clear with my three favs that I am a bit of a swamp girl. I do love the seclusion and wildness of these cool, twisting waterways, but heck, after paddling more than fifty Florida rivers, there isn’t one that I would not return to. They are all pretty “awe”-some.

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The rain came in torrents the night before, and I woke to partly cloudy skies and a chance of more rain.    I called Canoe Escape in Thonotosassa for a weather report, and I was a bit surprised when the guy on the other end chirped, “Skies are clear here!”  So, off I went to discover the Hillsborough River.

The Wild Hillsborough River

Originating in the Green Swamp, the Hillsborough is a black water river and largely spring fed by the waters of Crystal Springs (south of Zephyrhills), accounting for its clarity—even after a hard rain.  Along its 54-mile journey, several tributaries feed into it before it empties into the Tampa Bay.  Throughout the years, this river has had  several names, but it was finally named Hillsborough River by the British in 1769 after the Earl of Hillsborough who served as colonial secretary of state (Boning).

On this Sunday morning, I rented a sit-inside kayak from the Canoe Escape outfitters and was dropped at Sargeant Park, where I had an option of paddling two hours downstream to Morris Bridge Park or four hours to Trout Creek Park.  I opted for the four-hour paddle, and was rewarded with a journey through a river wonderland.  This river was absolutely beautiful—an A+–with water often clear enough for me to see not only the eel grass swaying along the sandy bottom, but many bass, gar, and sucker fish as well.

And there were many, many alligators.  Within my first 30 minutes on the river, I  had already sighted 20 gators.  It appears that alligators are to the Hillsborough what turtles are to the Santa Fe.  By the end of my paddle, I had seen somewhere between 50 and 100.  It was obvious that these gators were at home in their habitat, and although they were not aggressive, they weren’t moving from their favorite spot just because I was there, either.

Beautiful, serene, and wild.  My paddle was—AWEsome.  I was in the midst of a bird paradise with a sweet symphony playing in the trees as the water pulled me gently along like a ride at Disney.  A great egret turned toward me, looking silly with white sand on the end of his bill, having just dug for some treasure.  A momma limpkin enjoyed a day at the river with her two young ones. Anhingas spread their wings to dry them in the sun.  Egrets, herons, limpkins, roseate spoonbills, woodpeckers, wood storks, and ibis were plentiful.  At one point in the journey, I passed Nature’s Classroom, and hundreds of vultures, seemingly wicked as they flapped their wings and congregated along the bank, took it all in.

The river was shaded, canopied for much of the trip by oaks, red maples, cypress, and an occasional sweetgum.  At times, the river was narrow and twisted and turned.  (I thought I had made a wrong turn at one point.)  When the river widened, water lilies and hyacinths decorated its edges.

It was impossible to see it all.  Watching a gator slither into the water to my left, I heard a huge splash to my right and turned just as an osprey lifted himself from the water.  An otter frolicked in the water, finally emerging with his hair slicked back, looking ready to don his smoking jacket.  The harmony and balance of nature amazed me.

I paddled just two small sections of this river, but there is so much more to it.  Other sections include a six-mile run from Crystal Springs to Hillsborough State Park (not for the beginner; there are three Class II drops/rapids and many portages in this section.)  The section from Hillsborough State Park to Sargeant Part where I put in, contains the Seventeen Runs with numerous deadfalls and carryovers. At this time of year with the low water levels, the Seventeen Runs section is closed.  However, for anyone interested, Canoe Escape takes a group out once a year in September.

Another beautiful Florida river, the Hillsborough is a wonderfully and surprisingly scenic and serene escape.

Outfitter: Canoe Escape. 9335 East Fowler Avenue, Thonotosassa, FL 33592. https://www.canoeescape.com/. (813) 986-2067)

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