A friend seeking advice contacted me last week. Her cousin from overseas was in town for a brief visit. She wanted him to enjoy a "real Florida" experience.
What would I suggest: Disney World? Ybor City? Clearwater Beach?
"None of the above," I said. "If I had to pick one place that would show Florida at its finest, I would pick the Hillsborough River."
The Hillsborough, which begins in the Green Swamp east of Dade City, flows for 59 miles through Pasco and Hillsborough counties before it reaches the bay in downtown Tampa. It is one of the state's last great wild waterways.
It's got all an archetypal Florida river should have: cypress swamps, hardwood hammocks, pine flatwoods and, of course, plenty of alligators. Indians, conquistadors, soldiers and smugglers have traveled its length.
Rich in history, you might call it Florida's "first river." While historians debate the exact route Spanish explorers took inland, there's no doubt these adventurers landed on the shores of Tampa Bay. I imagine Hernando De Soto had a young lieutenant who eyed the river from the deck of a galleon and wondered where it led. Did he take a longboat and some men and set off into the wilderness?
Five hundred years ago, the banks looked quite different. The ancient cypress trees, some thousands of years old, probably blocked most of the sunlight. The forests were filled with wild cats, bears and howling wolves. It was probably scary and dangerous for these sailors who had been so long at sea.
After the Spanish came the Seminoles, wandering Creeks from the British territories to the north, and they staked a claim. That was soon challenged by the Americans, who built bridges and forts, only to surrender them to the mosquitoes and snakes.
Eventually, the Indians grew tired of fighting and disappeared to the south, leaving the land and river to loggers, who stripped the old growth forests, changing the landscape forever.
But the river has a way of healing itself, and today, it takes a trained eye to spot the berms that supported the narrow-gauge rail lines that hauled the timber away. The wolves are gone. The bears have moved south and north, away from people.
Every now and again, you still hear tales of a lone panther stalking the river's banks, or of a big bull gator that guards the mouth of an inhospitable stretch known as Seventeen Runs. "The Runs," as the area is called by locals, has dozens of downed trees, a myriad of feeder streams and dead-end creeks, which makes it a favorite hunting ground for large alligators. Big Joe used to frequent this part of the Hillsborough until he got too bold and a state-licensed trapper removed him in the name of public safety.
But for a tourist from England, or any place else that doesn't have large reptiles as residents, even a 6-foot gator is an impressive sight. The Hillsborough River has no shortage of alligators, big and small.
But in general, the river is ideal for beginners, especially the section below Hillsborough River State Park, serviced by an outfitter, Canoe Escape. The river is also a birder's paradise, and you can count on seeing great blue heron, white ibis, osprey and red-shouldered hawks.
My favorite trip, and the one I recommended to my friend and her cousin, is the float from John B. Sargeant Park to Morris Bridge Park. It takes about two hours. No experience necessary.
February is the best month to paddle. There are no bugs, the air is cool and crowds nonexistent.