Six friends and I went kayaking last week on the Hillsborough River in Hillsborough River State Park. It was one of the most enjoyable days I've had recently and my first time kayaking the river.
As we paddled, carried along by a 1- to 2-mph current through flatwoods and swamps, I was reminded that while our North Florida coast is threatened by oil which is driving away natives and tourists, our 160 state parks and preserves offer another inexpensive and pleasant way to enjoy many of the wild places still remaining in the Sunshine State.
In most parks visitors can fish, bike, camp, swim and hike. Some parks offer well-appointed cabins, horseback riding, birding, guided cave tours and travel trailer stays with full hookup. A few parks celebrate the state's history with battle re-enactments and Florida Indian festivals.
The Florida Park Service is divided into five districts: Northwest, Northeast, Central, Southwest and Southeast. Pinellas and Hillsborough counties are in the Southwest District. It has 35 parks and preserves, stretching from the gulf to the Lake Wales Ridge and from Inverness to the northern rim of Everglades. Parks and preserves in our district include Alafia River Park, Anclote Key Park, Charlotte Harbor Preserve, Mound Key Park, Gamble Plantation Park, Little Manatee River Park, Highlands Hammock Park, Estero Bay Preserve and Koreshan Historic Site.
Under mostly overcast skies, with the temperature in the upper 90s, we kayaked the 6 miles from Sargeant Park to Trout Creek Park. Although 6 miles is a short distance, we had vigorous paddling. In some stretches, no more than 20 feet wide, we faced fallen trees over the water. Several times, I either had to recline or bend over to clear obstacles. Everyone on the river had to maneuver around branches, logs and other deadfall — remnants of our last hurricanes — mere inches beneath the tea-colored surface.
These encounters and others made the experience worthwhile. Most kayakers I know measure their enjoyment by the challenges they overcome. There's something satisfying in trusting your safety, sometimes your life, to a tiny craft that can capsize in an instant or can spin out of control in powerful currents and sudden drop-offs.
The scenery was made for postcards. We paddled beneath a canopy of cypress and oaks and Spanish moss, through different habitats, including cypress swamp, hardwood hammock, grass pond and flatwood. We saw alligators, barred owls, Florida red-bellied turtles, pileated woodpecker, black vulture, great egret, double-breasted cormorant and a lone roseate spoonbill.
The highlight of the trip for me came as we paddled for about a quarter mile in the rain. I was wearing a T-shirt and short pants. My first instinct was to find cover, but there was none. As warm raindrops pelted my face, arms and legs, I felt as if I was living naturally, at least temporarily. I was in the great outdoors, in the wide open with nowhere to hide. My mates, who had been cracking jokes and laughing, grew quiet. They, too, seemed to have been soothed by the rain.
About a half mile from Morris Bridge, we stopped at what was left of an old railroad trestle. It mostly had been washed away. This was a good place to stop and a good time to stop. After two hours of steady paddling, we were tired, thirsty, hungry and ready for a little conservation. We talked about some of the wildlife we had seen and the difficult places we had maneuvered. Other kayakers joined us, and we exchanged stories and a few jokes. Kayakers, especially the ones I know, can tell some rather salty jokes.
From the trestle, we headed for Trout Creek Park, our destination. The river widened and the sky opened up after we passed Morris Bridge. I found this stretch to be less interesting because we had no challenges, just straight, easy paddling.
When we took out at Trout Creek, I felt a sense of accomplishment. I had experienced a wild part of Florida I hadn't seen before. And I learned all over again that one of the best ways to enjoy our beautiful state is to explore our rivers by kayak.