There's one way to temper your fear of alligators: put yourself in a canoe in the Hillsborough River, 13 miles from downtown Tampa, and paddle through gator-filled swamp. By the end of the journey you'll barely bat an eyelid at the eight-foot-long reptile sunning himself on a log just meters from your canoe.
It's not hard to leave downtown Tampa, a city core with little personality and few attractions for the pre-and post-cruise crowd. But we were keen to get to know this neck of the woods, and learned that the best way to do this is to literally immerse yourself in the woods-or in Florida's case, the swamps. Far from polluted, oily water-the image that comes to mind when most of us think of swamps-the water on the Hillsborough River is clean and the plant life lush and verdant.
"We know it's clean because of the limpkins," says Joe Faulk, owner of Canoe Escape, a company specializing in guided and self-guided canoe trips on the river. He's referring to the large birds with blood curdling shrieks we pass as we paddle through the still water, carefully avoiding trees felled by the recent storm. "Limpkins are the best indicators of the ecosystem's health because 99 percent of their diet is comprised of apple snails," he explains. "When you have apple snails, you have a healthy ecosystem."
On either side of the river maple, oak and cypress trees stand tall, their trunks submerged in water and their boughs trailing Spanish moss that hangs like wispy beards. Fields of pennywort grass and water lilies stretch across the surface of the water and light-footed birds like herons and egrets pick their way carefully over the plants.
It's a cloudy March day and the sun is trying hard to peek through, but when it does the gators start showing their toothy faces almost immediately, crawling up onto the logs and lying there like sun worshipers, with a stillness that belies their speed and agility below the water's surface.
They're not hard to spot, these alligators. Some are fat bellied and eight feet long, others only a year or two old. They look at us with wary eyes, splashing back into the swamp when they figure we've come too close for comfort. "Their only fear is humans," says Faulk, who sees up to 50 gators every time he guides a tour along the river. "They get a bad rap, but the truth is that there've only been about 21 people killed by alligators since the 1970s."
Still, the Hillsborough River is not a place you want to go swimming. Part of a state park that stretches 16,000 acres it is cherished by wildlife enthusiasts and travelers who want to learn more about Florida's natural habitat. Apart from the hundreds of gators that bathe on logs or drift silently through the shallow water, the swamp is home to red-bellied turtles, large-mouth bass, vultures who hunker down in the treetops and banded snakes who warm themselves in the sun.
The birdlife is profuse, diverse and easy to spot. In a two-hour-long paddle you could easily see roseate spoonbills, limpkins, egrets, herons, woodpeckers, hawks, kingfishers and more. Faulk has been paddling these swamps for 19 years but even so, he relishes every opportunity to climb into a canoe and drift away from the highway traffic, and into a place of stillness and beauty. He's sharp as a knife when it comes to spotting wildlife, can identify birds by their calls and is a font of knowledge about the river and its critters. "We have some two million gators in the state of Florida," he says. "They're farmed for their hide and meat, and in some restaurants you can order gator nuggets off the menu. But the truth is the meat is pretty bland and tough."
We're glad not to be dining on gator meat that night, but leave the river with a new respect for these reptilian beauties and the lush, Floridian swamps they inhabit.
IF YOU GO:
Canoe trips with Canoe Escape range in price from $24.50 to $34.50 per paddler depending on duration. For more information visit www.canoeescape.com or call (813) 986-2067
Photos by Lauren Kramer:
1. Limpkin-100_1269 The large-winged limpkins, birds with blood-curdling shrieks that inhabit the Hillsborough River ecosystem, are a great indicator of the river's health
2. Joe-Faulk-100_1271 - Joe Faulk, owner of Canoe Escape, has been guiding canoe trips on the Hillsborough River for years, and knows it like the back of his hand.
3. Aligator-100_1278 An eight-foot alligator warms himself in the sun on the banks of the Hillsborough River, in Thonotosassa, not far from Tampa, Florida
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