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PADDLING out of bounds

When Hurricane Frances barreled through and flooded several area rivers, paddle-sport enthusiasts saw an opportunity.

"The current will be ripping," I told my friends. "There's no better time to make a record run."

But as is often the case in times of natural disaster, government officials, citing safety, found it necessary to impede the quest for adventure.

Two of the Tampa Bay area's more popular canoe and kayak destinations _ the Hillsborough and Alafia rivers _ were closed to human-powered traffic because of dangerously high water.

If my comrades and I were going to experience the thrill of riding a hurricane-swollen river, it would have to be on the sly, commando style.

Evaluating our options, somebody suggested the Anclote. When most people think of this North Pinellas river they picture the congested, suburban waterway that runs through the historic section of Tarpon Springs.

But 20 or so miles upstream, the Anclote retains its wild, predevelopment character ... especially when it has another 5 or 6 feet of water to get the current moving.

Topographical maps show the river starting in the Pasco heartland, somewhere near U.S. 41. Maps, however, can be misleading. What appears as a river or stream could be a dry gully or ditch, neither of which is conducive to travel by canoe or kayak.

Prepaddle reconnaissance revealed the best insertion point would be the bridge on Little Road, east of State Road 54. We estimated our travel time to be three hours, which included a postpaddle carbohydrate stop at the Anclote Boat Club, a biker bar on the east side of U.S. 19.

At 10 a.m. we pulled up near the bridge, unloaded our long sea kayaks and carried them 50 yards down an embankment to the swift river. We paddled upstream for 15 minutes, found our progress blocked by fallen trees, turned around and speeded back toward the Gulf of Mexico.

The Anclote River floods at 20 feet, and two days after Hurricane Frances it peaked at 23. By the time we got there the water had dropped at least 10 feet.

The trees above our heads were packed with debris _ plywood, broken boards, lawn furniture _ that had been deposited by the floodwaters.

The river, normally not navigable this high up, was roaring downhill at 5 mph.

"Isn't this great?" I said. "We'll be done in no time at all."

Then I rounded a bend and plowed straight into a logjam stretching from one bank to the other. The current pinned my 17-foot kayak, designed for the open waters of the gulf, against the fallen trees.

A spiderweb covered my head, and I felt an arachnid crawl across my shorts and down my leg.

"God, I hate spiders," I muttered to myself.

My friends stopped in time to avoid a similar fate, but for the next 5 miles the journey was typified by long periods of unbridled exhilaration punctuated by moments of panic as I struggled to avoid obstacles in the fast-moving current.

Frances' floodwaters had uprooted 100-year-old cypress trees and pulled docks off their pilings. Judging from the size and scope of the debris field, the power of the water must have been punishing. A week later, each time the river narrowed and the current funneled through a small opening, you could feel its punch.

Three hours after we started we finally made it, bruised and battered, to unobstructed water. As I rounded a turn I saw a woman standing on the river bank. I was just about to say, "Good afternoon," when I spotted something out of the corner of my eye. A 6-foot gator, no more than a paddle's length away, shot forward, splashed into water and sent my heart climbing up my throat.

"Sorry," the woman said. "I was going to warn you."

I pulled over downstream to examine my assortment of insect and spider bites. I stopped counting at a dozen.

An hour later we made it to the Anclote Boat Club for well-earned refreshments.

"Did you come by river?" the bartender asked.

"Yes," I said, hanging my life jacket on the back of a chair. "We paddled."