If you come to Florida to visit Disney World or to park yourself on a beach to roast in the sun, this post is not for you. But if you are interested in discovering the Sunshine State’s natural landscape, please read on. Being home to numerous swamps, marshes, rivers and bayous, the US’s southern most state is the perfect setting to discover flora and fauna unique to the area. If you wish to add a bit of a workout to your experience as well as having more of a chance to see wildlife, we recommend skipping the gas-propelled options and instead go canoeing in Florida.
We have enjoyed canoeing on the Hillsborough River for over 10 years and have always had a great experience. Some times we see more wildlife than others, but even on our worst visit to the Greater Tampa area’s biggest river, was full of fantastic animals and enough twists and turns to keep your steering strokes sharp.
Birds, Birds, Birds
It had been three years since we saw our beloved Hillsborough River and within seconds of entering the water we were reminded why we canoe in this location again and again. We spotted the first of many King Herons that we would see on this trip, although we named them the technical term of “big ass bird”. They are huge standing at 3-4 feet tall and their plumage is varying shades of grays and blues.
Although you are sure to see wildlife the entire length of the river, the best location to see the most wildlife, both in sheer numbers and variety, is at the very beginning of the trip. Instead of turning left when we reached the river to begin our journey downstream, we made a right and headed into the lagoon. As always our jaunt out of the way did not disappoint.
We came across many cormorants, either swimming in the water or more often up in a tree drying out their wings in the sun.
One of the highlights of this trip was watching white ibises flying across the river en masse and once they landed on the other side, it looked like the dark trees were spotted with white ornaments. At one point a pink spoonbill joined the mix.
Although the sight of so many birds is simply breathtaking, be sure not to stare directly up with your mouth open in awe, for you might get more up close and personal with the birds than you had anticipated. After canoeing through bird bombs slamming on the water all around us, and one even splashing up on Mindy in the bow, we decided it was perhaps time to journey on to the less intimidating sections of the river.
We continued to see ibises, herons and cormorants everywhere we looked as we followed the current downstream.
One of advantages of signing up for the four hour trip is that most fellow boaters finish their trip at Morris Bridge Park, approximately two hours away from the drop off point (4.5 miles). No surprisingly, just beyond the park, where we stopped for lunch, the river and the banks become still, proving to be the perfect place for an owl to rest in a tree. Spotting the owl high up in the tree was one of the highlights of the trip for us.
When we almost reached our pick up point, a total of 9.5 miles from our starting point, the river opens up wide. This section has been deemed “nature’s classroom” by the locals and this is where you can see large amounts of turkey vultures in the trees, on the shores as well as circling above. From here, it is still a full twenty minutes to the rendezvous so be sure to allow plenty of time.
The American Alligator
I’ve always been fascinated by alligators and crocodiles, which are thought to be the last of the living reptiles that were closely related to dinosaurs – how cool is that?! The 1.25 million alligators that call Florida home can be seen in every county of the Sunshine State, the perfect location for their diet of turtles, birds, fish, amphibians and mammals.
Don’t let the last item on their food list scare you though; humans cause much more harm to alligators than the other way around. In fact, hunting for the purposes of using their skin for belts and shoes, the flesh for meat and their heads for vacation souvenirs forced the American alligator on the endangered species list. Stricter hunting laws have since led to them being taken off this list, but to this day, alligators are hunted for the same reasons listed above.
Alligators generally shy away from humans, but can get very defensive and aggressive when they feel threatened. This aggression is often put on display at alligator farms, where they torment the alligators in order to get oooh’s and ahhh’s from the crowd.
We maintain that the best place to see alligators is to see them in the wild and the Hillsborough River has never disappointed us, no matter the weather. We always keep an eye out for them basking in the sun, soaking up the need sunshine to regulate their temperature, or swimming in the water.
Advice and Safety Rules for Canoeing on the Hillsborough
The river runs very slowly here so can accommodate any skill level.
You can bring your own canoe or kayak, or rent from Canoe Escape which is on location.
If you rent a canoe or kayak, you can opt for the 2 hour (4.5 miles), 4 hour (9.5 miles), or 6 hour paddle (although they dissuade the 6 hour as the last 2 hours go through residential areas).
Bring $2 cash for the parking fee and if you are using your own boat and an additional $5 for the boat launch fee.
Once in the water be sure to go to the right to explore the lagoon before heading downstream to your destination.
Don’t feed any animals – ever!
Don’t bring pets along for the ride as they could attract unwanted attention from alligators.
Do not go swimming in the river or anywhere there might be alligators.