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."