Paddling through a Florida jungle to the sea

Email|Print| Text size + By Clare Innes
Globe Correspondent / March 3, 2004

TAMPA -- We are paddling just barely faster than the lazy current of jade green and sunlight on the Hillsborough River. Alligators from 4 to 13 feet long stretch out on logs along the banks, soaking up the warmth, watching us through slitted eyes.

"I've lived about 5 miles from here all my life," drawls my guide, Fabian Nunn, after I wonder aloud at our tenuous spot at the top of the food chain. "I've been treed by a hog more than once, but I've swum the river a million times and I've never had an alligator look at me funny."

Turkey buzzards circle overhead, speculatively, it seems to me. It turns out they come here from all over the country to spend the winter. In December, the trees are black with them.

The 54-mile-long Hillsborough River begins its journey to Tampa Bay in the Green Swamp area in the middle of Florida. Tampa lies just to the southwest, but we may as well be in the middle of nowhere, roaming through an area that has managed to retain its blissful quietude despite being within squawking distance of Busch Gardens. The only sounds we hear from our canoe are calls and squeaks and whisperings of the jungle, thick with life all around us.

The Hillsborough has served as a water highway for thousands of years; it formed a border of sorts between the peaceful, agrarian Tamuca Indians to the north and the fierce, death-worshiping Calusa Indians to the south.

The first Europeans arrived in the 1500s and began two centuries of hacking their way through the mercilessly tangled jungle, losing themselves in labyrinthine waterways and enduring the hellish torments of bloodthirsty insects. By turns, they befriended, battled, and enslaved the natives. By the mid-1700s, the area was claimed by a handful of land-hungry crowns of Europe, and the name of an English earl replaced the river's Seminole moniker, "Lockcha-popka-chiska," or "River-where-one-crosses-to-eat-acorns."

Today, the river is the well-protected watershed and source of drinking water for Tampa. We are floating as slowly as possible through what is the 2,990-acre Hillsborough River State Park, which includes miles of hiking and biking trails.

"Most of our trees are mixed hardwood," says Nunn, as a great black-crowned night heron tiptoes into the shadows. "We've got maple, cedar, palm, oak, and those things hanging from the trees are vermiliads, or air ferns. You get up close and you can almost always find a tree frog in 'em."

He explains that the woody knobs sticking out of the water are cypress "knees," or roots, that serve as the arboreal equivalent of a snorkel.

A skein of white ibis flows overhead, feathers rustling. The birds spontaneously attach themselves to a treetop, instantly filling it.

We come upon a red-tailed hawk just as it scoops a suckerfish the size of a shoe from the river. Startled by our appearance, the hawk drops the fish, which lands not back in the water but in the crook of a snag sticking a few feet out of the river. The hawk flaps impatiently nearby, one eye on us, the other never leaving its quarry.

No wonder this excursion seems so exotic yet so familiar. This is what theme parks try to capture with "jungle" adventure rides and excursions: the pure color of the river, the innumerable species of flamboyant plants and wildlife, the drama of the hunt, the escape, and the improbable recapture of the fish. Near the end of the trip, we pass the tiniest alligator of all. It's barely a yard long, and it's even cute.

"Most gators get to be 12 to 13 feet," Nunn says. "But one that ate the park ranger's bull mastiff was 16 feet 7 inches. Those things can outsprint a quarterhorse for 30 yards. If you're ever being chased by one, run in zigzags. Gators have a narrow wheelbase and can't turn."

I keep this in mind the next day as I help carry kayaks to the edge of the Weeki Wachee River in the town that bears the river's name. We lucked into a local kayak club outing, and Julie Flynt, owner of Florida Adventure Outfitters, has loaded up some extra glass-bottom kayaks and invited us to tag along with the group.

We are just a handful of miles from the coast where this spring-fed, swimming-pool-blue river spills into the sea. The water is so clear we can almost count the grains of clean white sand that line the riverbed. The Weeki Wachee is known for the manatees that ride the tides as the ocean mingles with the river.

The jungle closes in around us, and Flynt overhears someone wondering what poisonous, toothy, and just plain ornery creatures we might encounter.

"If you don't pick it up, it's not going to hurt you," Flynt advises in the friendly but offhand way that I'm discovering is typically Floridian: understated danger seasoned with a dash of humor and respect. She bobs nearby in a floppy hat and big sunglasses, her feet flung up over the deck of her kayak. She looks completely relaxed as we ride the lazy current.

Through the bottoms of our kayaks we watch a couple of mullets stirring up the sand among the watery fronds. Mullets? Down here, mullets aren't just wonky haircuts, they're tasty fish, I'm told, often fried.

On the final leg of the float, cottages line the banks, and it is here that the manatees float beneath us, dwarfing our kayaks and occasionally rising to the surface with a sigh. They seem serene as monks, moving with a peaceful grace and a kind of enormous, beautiful inevitability.

We end our trip, load the kayaks into our trucks, and head to the Upper Deck Restaurant. I order a fresh-from-the-sea fisherman's platter -- minus the mullet.

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