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Paddling the Hillsborough River

Shawn Brown, stern, and son, Logan, 7, paddle the Hillsborough River with a Cub Scout pack looking for birds, turtles and, of course, alligators.


Shawn Brown, stern, and son, Logan, 7, paddle the Hillsborough River with a Cub Scout pack looking for birds, turtles and, of course, alligators.

THONOTOSASSA — Whenever I get a batch of new recruits, I try to scare them, but not too much.

I want them to respect the river, but never fear it.

"Alligators …" I said. "You will see a few."

The boys' eyes grew wide.

"But they won't bother you …" I added, "unless you bother them."

My son, Kai, who at age 8 is already a veteran of the Hillsborough River, smiled at his friends. He has heard all my stories about the bull gator named Big Joe, which he then shared with his fellow Cub Scouts.

"You guys will do fine," I reassured them. "I've paddled dozens of rivers in Florida, and this is my favorite."

A wild river

Even though the upper Hillsborough is located just a half-hour drive from downtown Tampa, it is still one of the most scenic rivers in Florida.

The state's 34-mile designated canoe trail runs from Crystal Springs to Tampa's Rowlett Park, though the upper reaches can be difficult to paddle.

The section below Hillsborough River State Park, called Seventeen Runs, should only be attempted by the most experienced paddlers. The last time I paddled that 6-mile stretch between Hillsborough County's Dead River and John B. Sargeant parks, it took more than five hours.

"The Runs," as it 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, the previously mentioned beast, used to frequent this part of the Hillsborough until he got a little too bold and a state-licensed trapper had to remove him in the name of public safety.

But in general, the Hillsborough River is kid-friendly, especially the section below the state park serviced by a local outfitter, Canoe Escape.

Fun and fast

This has been a great month to paddle the Hillsborough River because spring rains have swollen the water level to about 8 feet above normal.

The Hillsborough, which begins in the southwest corner of the Green Swamp and flows 54 miles through Pasco and Hillsborough counties to Tampa Bay, is an easy to moderate paddle, which makes it ideal for beginners.

The river is a birder's paradise, and you can count on seeing great blue heron, white ibis, osprey and red-shouldered hawks. But over the years I have seen much rarer birds, including bald eagles, wild turkeys and great horned owls.

My son and I have also encountered white-tailed deer, river otters and dozens of alligators. And several times over the years, Florida panthers have also been seen by reliable witnesses, including several park rangers.

So pack your binoculars, bird book and a notepad so your little ones can start their wild things "life's list."

Exploring the Hillsborough River


Canoe Escape, 9335 E. Fowler Ave., Thonotosassa; call (813) 986-2067;

e-mail or visit

Self-guided rental pricing: Tandem canoes or kayaks range from $24.50 to $34.50 per paddler. Shuttle service included. Reservations recommended.

Suggested trips

John B. Sargeant Park to Morris Bridge Park41/2 miles2 to 2½ hoursMostly shadeGreat choice for beginners or families with small children because of the variety of wildlife. We saw five alligators, including one 8-footer.
Morris Bridge Park to Trout Creek Park4 miles2 hoursShade and full sunDuring the first part of this trip you will twist and turn beneath a thick canopy of trees, then the river opens up. Birders will love this section. Keep an eye out for vultures and roseate spoonbills.
Trout Creek Park to

Rotary Park
5 miles2 hoursFull sunThis is the best choice for large groups because the river is wider and canoes can travel side by side. The last part of this trip goes through suburban Temple Terrace.

Rules of the river

• No dogs

• No radios

• No water guns, Frisbees, etc.

• No swimming

• No styrofoam

or glass

• No chainsaws

• No firearms

• Don't feed the alligators

• Young children and nonswimmers should wear personal flotation devices. Pack out all trash, including what you can catch floating in the river.

Trip checklist

• Water

• Food

• Sunscreen/

lip balm

• Wide-brimmed hat

• Sunglasses

• Water shoes

• Camera

(waterproof or disposable)

• First-aid kit

• Cell phone

• Dry bag or box

Note: Insect repellent is usually not necessary while moving down the river. But if you plan to stop and explore, bring some in the first-aid kit.

Terry Tomalin, Times Outdoors Editor

Paddling the Hillsborough River 03/25/10 [Last modified: Thursday, March 25, 2010 7:02pm]
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