THONOTOSASSA — Jack Coleman knew that long hair and a beard might be an impediment to promotion. But he didn't care. Out in the swamp they call Seventeen Runs, folks don't give a hoot what you look like.
"Usually, they're crying for help," said the park ranger known as Dead River Jack. "They are just happy to see somebody … anybody … who will show them the way out."
Coleman, 60, doesn't know exactly how many people he has rescued from that stretch of the Hillsborough River in his 30-year career that ended this month but he figures the grateful souls number in the dozens.
"We had a whole Boy Scout troop that we led out of there once," said the man who has watched over Hillsborough County's Dead River Wilderness Park for three decades. "They were covered from head to toe with mosquito bites."
Coleman's seen his share of wildlife over the years — panthers, gators and wild boar. The county park he oversees sits on the banks of the Hillsborough River, normally a deep, fast-moving river, but the section that runs through his front yard can appear far more sinister. The sky disappears, replaced by a canopy of towering cypress trees as the river spreads out into a vast floodplain.
Old timers named the stretch Seventeen Runs because it supposedly has that many branches. But Coleman believes the true number of feeder streams and dead-end creeks may number many more.
For a while, he tried to warn paddlers before they entered the swamp. Eventually, he got tired of people not listening, so he posted a sign at the entrance of the bewildering stretch of river. It reads: "Abandon all hope ye who enter here."
The stretch has also been a favorite haunt of big bull gators. One particularly troublesome reptile, nicknamed "Big Joe," used to stand guard at the entrance until he was spotted stalking children and a trapper took him out.
"He wasn't gone more than a week when another gator came in and took his spot," he said. "We call him Little Joe but I think he will get even bigger."
Coleman wasn't the first ranger to oversee Dead River. The posting, lonely and isolated, was never a sought-after position.
"I think I got the job because I was the only one who could get back here," he explained. "I had just bought a new Jeep Renegade with Super Swamper tires. The only qualification required was a 4-wheel drive vehicle."
A few years later, Coleman watched from the shoreline as a family drifted down river in a canoe. Everything was fine until they hit a stump, thought it was a gator and panicked, tipping over the canoe. Coleman hit the water, found the little girl hiding in the air pocket of the overturned canoe and carried her to shore.
"I got to go to a county commission meeting where they gave me an award and a $20 gift certificate to Sonny's barbecue," he said. Afterward, a commissioner told the ranger that he could use a haircut and a shave.
"I told them that the Good Lord and John the Baptist wouldn't fit their dress code," Coleman said. "I guess that's why I never got promoted."
Coleman also had the opportunity to see a Florida panther in its natural habitat. For years, biologists maintained that there was no proof that the elusive predator could be found north of the Everglades and Big Cypress. But coming home from a hockey game one night, Coleman spotted a large cat sitting on the road near his house in the woods.
"It just looked at me for a moment then took off into the night," he said. A short time later a panther was killed crossing a nearby highway. "I guess that's when they got their proof."
Looking back on his career in the woods, Dead River Jack said that he would not change a thing.
"They say that if you find a job that you love you will have a good career," he said. "I did it. Who can ask for anything more?"