Few walking the planet — at least those on two legs — know the navigable portions of the Hillsborough River like the septuagenarian with the broad smile and bushy white mustache.Joe Faulk, 73-year-old bird watcher at heart, has spent the better part of the past three decades guiding customers along its tranquil, tannic waters via canoe or kayak. Neither ear buds nor six-packs are permitted on his tours; Faulk sells undistilled celebrations of nature.“We’re not just slinging boats out there, we’re trying to sell a chance to see a natural ecosystem,” said Faulk, founder and proprietor of Canoe Escape, which he estimates has taken a million people down the river over the past 29 years.“We’re selling wildlife, serenity, the nature experience.”At least he was , until society as a whole hit uncharted waters.What Faulk wouldn’t give to guide another group of paddlers beneath the canopy of sprawling cypress trees, to point out the great blue herons and red-bellied turtles, to see eyes widen at the sight of a gator reclining on a bank or an otter scurrying past a stern.“I mean, we got within 6 feet of an alligator one time, which was really neat,” said Christopher Birkner, a southern Illinois high school football coach who took a kayak trip via Canoe Escape with his family last Christmas.“Not sensationalized, just very rustic, just very natural. I think that was probably the neatest thing about it to me, how kind of pristine and natural it was.”But the coronavirus pandemic shut down Faulk’s business. For nearly a decade now, Canoe Escape has operated out of John B. Sargeant Park in Thonotosassa. A county-run facility, it has been closed for more than two months, forcing Faulk to temporarily lay off his half-dozen or so employees.Meantime, he has evolved into a full-time caregiver to his wife Jean, who is battling colon cancer. Moreover, the decades of manual labor — unloading canoes from racks, hauling them to the water’s edge, loading them up again — has rendered a toll. Faulk can raise his right arm only to where it is parallel with his surgically mended shoulder.One of the Hillsborough River’s most enduring ambassadors is tired, and a little torn.“I love people, I love our river, I love what we do, and there’s a certain little pride in there,” said Faulk, dad of two and grandfather of three. “My legacy and my company, I’d like to go on. I don’t know if that will happen or not.”An Orlando native, Faulk had no knowledge of canoe outfitting when he started Canoe Escape, but he did possess two prerequisites: a love of nature and well-honed customer-service skills.He was a design draftsman at Cape Kennedy (now Cape Canaveral) during the first moon landing before the multi-national engineering company for which he worked laid off 14,000 people. He found a job in Virginia working on Navy submarines and high-pressure steam systems, but longed to return to Florida.Realizing the hotel industry in his home state was booming, he took evening correspondence courses on the business and landed a job as a night auditor for a 620-room property in Orlando. That gig launched a quarter-century career in hotel management and operations across the state.While headquartered in Tampa in the late 1970s, the Faulks built a 2,800-square-foot home in San Antonio, a rural community of rolling hillsides on Pasco County’s northern fringe. They kept the place, even after a transfer led him to Fort Lauderdale, where his career diverted to a cemetery holding company.“We’re avid bird watchers,” Faulk said. “So we were in south Florida, we lived near the Everglades and all these nature preserves. … And that became our love, because I had weekends off, and we could go. So we got a canoe, because you can get out and get close to seeing the wildlife.”When the holding company was bought out by a larger firm, Faulk decided to take control of his own destiny, walking away from what he called “a ton of money” to pursue his passion. He and Jean returned to their San Antonio home (which they never sold) and began examining the canoe industry.To their surprise, they found no canoe or kayak outfitters around the Hillsborough River, which had become one of their favorite places to indulge their hobby.“It’s the eighth wonder of the world, I swear,” Faulk said. “I couldn’t believe nobody was running on it.”From there, Faulk set about bringing his dream to fruition. He purchased 30 canoes from a manufacturer in Old Town, found a welder to build him some canoe trailers, leased two acres on east Fowler Avenue to set up his headquarters, and bought an old 15-passenger bus to haul customers to the river.He then convinced the Sargeant Park manager to let him launch his canoes there, with the agreement that trash, “boom boxes,” rope swings and beer bashes wouldn’t be tolerated.“It’s a canoe trip, a kayak trip, but the premise of the dream was — and this is how we’ve guided our company — that we are going to provide a chance for people to see and experience a natural Florida ecosystem,” Faulk said.“The canoe and kayak just happened to be the vehicle. We wanted them to see what treasure we have in Hillsborough County that’s 15 miles as the crow flies from downtown Tampa. Nobody else was up there, nobody had ever even tried it, and we had never run a canoe business.”In time, Faulk’s fledgling enterprise burgeoned.Inventory ultimately increased to 38 canoes, 13 solo kayaks and 19 tandem kayaks. His staff grew to more than a half-dozen employees, and son Brian became company president.Deals were struck with area resorts, which would bring guests by the busloads for river excursions. Faulk started a paddling club that grew to 350 members. The county allowed him to set up his business inside the park.Demand increased to the point where Canoe Escape operated seven days a week, closing only on Christmas, Christmas Eve and Thanksgiving. When Faulk found Christianity late in life, he closed on Easter Sunday also. When Phil Evans, the park manager with whom Faulk initially negotiated, retired from the county, he came to work as a Canoe Escape guide.“They have always run Canoe Escape in a very professional way,” Evans said, “with excellent customer service that has been greatly appreciated by not only our local citizens but from people around the world.”Tampa native Mike Cole, who now runs Canoe Escape’s day-to-day operations, said Faulk flourished mainly by translating his hospitality background to the Hillsborough River. Case in point: The resort visitors who bused for canoe trips found a fruit basket awaiting them in their watercraft.“He found a niche within a niche,” said Cole, a King High alumnus who has worked for Faulk the past decade.”That’s why I really like working for our company, because it’s not so much, ‘Hey, we’ve got to get these boats out, we’ve got to get rentals, we’ve got to maximize profit.’ It’s about the quality of the experience that we’re selling.”Even on bustling days, Faulk and his staff would launch no more than six to eight boats each half-hour, to preserve the tranquility of the experience. Moonlight trips were established. Along the journeys, customers came to spot gators, deer, bald eagles, wild turkeys, even wild hogs.“People aren’t used to such an authentic experience nowadays,” Cole said.“You have kids coming in saying, ‘What, mom and dad? We’re going to Thonotosassa, Florida? Why can’t we do Busch Gardens?’ And they come back saying,’ Wow, that was better than our trip to Disney World.’”In time, Faulk drifted from the operation’s daily grind, delegating duties as he devoted more time to his newfound faith. He stepped deeper into the background when Jean’s cancer was diagnosed.Then came the pandemic, right at the peak of Canoe Escape’s busy season. Its last day of operations was March 27.“(Spring) is our business,” Faulk said. “And in that time frame (mid-February through May), it’s 90 percent out-of-state, out-of-country.”So a river odyssey of another sort — metaphorical, and mildly grim — has ensued. Faulk contemplates where the next bend will lead, and whether he should forge onward.He could close down and sell his inventory, but he seems far too endeared to his legacy and employees to do that. He could sell to someone committed to keeping the river pristine and preserving the company’s customer-service principles. Or he could stay on and entrust the business full-time to Cole.In any event, the weary guide seems ready to pull ashore for good.“I love people, I love business, I love interaction,” Faulk said. “I can’t do any of that because of my wife’s situation, and I’m not complaining about that. The Lord is saying it’s time.”But what a breathtaking journey.• • • GET THE DAYSTARTER MORNING UPDATE: Sign up to receive the most up-to-date information . SO YOU WANT TO LEAVE YOUR HOUSE? Read these 10 tips first DID YOU TEST POSITIVE FOR CORONAVIRUS? A Tampa Bay Times reporter would like to talk to you. WHAT’S OPEN?: This list includes local establishments doing business in various ways. 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