Monday, December 10, 2012

A return to Zephyrhills and kayaking the Hillsborough River

 November 30, Zephyrhills, Florida

blue heron sideview

We made the trip from the Keys to Zephyrhills on the 29th in one day, just short of 400 miles—breaking our 250 miles or 2:50 p.m. rule. I was definitely anxious to get here because of the news that my uncle had died on the 28th.  My aunt, his widow, is my mother’s only living sibling and my godmother. She moved here to be close to my mom who died unexpectedly in May 2011. My uncle had been ill for quite some time but he lived at home under my aunt’s loving care, so the transition to life without him after 51 years was going to be a tough one. Fortunately, we will be staying in Zephyrhills just a couple miles away from my aunt’s home for the month of December. I am so glad to be here for her during this difficult time.

My middle brother Jerry and his three children also live here so there is other family around, but his children are much younger than me (read--a long way from retirement) with busy lives of their own. Additionally, his twenty-three-old daughter has been visiting Florida before leaving for Sweden for up to two years so we have been trying to spend time doing fun Florida things with her before she leaves on December 3. Kathryn was raised in Colorado, not Florida, so my brother gets a kick out of showing her the real Florida (vs. the Disneyworld one).  What better way to do this than float the Hillsborough River?

We weren’t sure whether we would go because of my aunt’s emotional state, but she convinced us to go have some fun before Kathryn left, so off we went about 10:00 a.m. Friday morning. My brother planned to rent a canoe at the John B. Sargeant Park a mere 13 miles from where we are staying at Majestic Oaks RV Resort.  For those with their own canoes or kayaks, you can put in here at the park with only the cost of a $2.00 parking fee.  Of course, the advantage to renting is that you are picked up downriver and taken back to your car, but we brought two cars and planned to do the transfer ourselves. The area we were going to float would take about two-three hours down the Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Preserve to the take out area just beyond the Morris Bridge. This stretch of the Hillsborough River Paddling Trail is officially designated as part of Florida’s Statewide System of Greenways and Trails.

Here is the sign that greets you right near the put-in. 

I knew ahead of time that the river would be teeming with alligators and possibly snakes, but I had not made that clear to Vic when he agreed to join us. He-he. He was now committed and seemed to have a pretty good sense of adventure this morning.  Good thing.

The riverbank area is flanked with pine flatwood, hardwood hammock, and cypress swamp. This habitat variety gives paddlers a good chance of seeing a diverse species of wildlife. My brother has floated this river many times so he was a pretty good guide in explaining what we might encounter along the way. This was the clearest he had ever seen the water, mainly due to a lack of rainfall in this area. It was also the shallowest water he had seen here, especially in terms of the surrounding swamps which were mostly dry. We learned from the guide at the canoe rental place that the cypress needles give off a tannic acid that typically turns the water black (hence the name blackwater swamp?), but the lack of rain meant less leaching of acid into the water.  The shallow depth also convinced us to leave our mirage drives (pedal system) for our kayaks in the car and do a real paddle down this gently flowing river. 



It was an absolutely beautiful day to float the river with temperatures in the mid 70s, clear blue skies, and a gentle breeze. (I was also concerned about the possible presence of mosquitoes or no-see-ems, but we had no issue with bugs.)  The first thing that struck me when we launched into the river was the profusion of yellow wildflowers (golden asters or hairy leafcup?) in several areas along the river bank.

Of course all eyes were pealed for alligator sightings.  My brother said they would mostly be on the bank or on logs sunning themselves which turned out to be true except in one instance when we saw one swimming across the river. Most were only 3-4 feet long but we saw a couple of “bad ass” 8-10 ft. gators staring at us from the bank. (Wildlife close-up photos are courtesy of my niece and her 30 zoom lens camera). I thought it would be fun to count our alligator sightings but I lost track after twenty.

Our second most common sighting other than lots of wading birds were turtles of all sizes sunning themselves on logs. Oftentimes when we approached close enough to get a good photo, you would hear a plop as they dropped themselves back in the water—although some did not seem to mind our presence. We thought we would see quite a few snakes. You can be sure Vic and I were really looking forward to staring down a cotton mouth on a log, but we did not come across any (that we saw).



There were birds nearly everywhere along the bank. Thanks to my handy laminated guide to the Birds of Florida’s Gulf Coast, I was able to identify most of what we were seeing which were Herons, Egrets, Ibises, and Anhingas. I was hoping to see my first wild sighting of a Roseate Spoonbill which is not too uncommon in this area, but it didn’t happen. We did see a couple of Belted Kingfishers but had no luck in capturing them in a photo. 


unnamed bird

egrets on tree limb

Aside from all the beautiful wildlife sightings, we had some excitement navigating the river.  There were several places where trees had fallen across the river leaving enough room for paddlers to do some limbo moves to pass underneath.


Near the last half hour of our trip, there was one area where you really had scoot down to clear the tree.  My brother and niece went through first in their canoe, followed by me, then Vic. I did not fare so well as I accidentally leaned a bit to the left and rolled the kayak. What a wet surprise. The worst part, aside from the alligator eyes watching me from the shore, was the drenching of my camera. We have a dry bag, but it doesn’t do much good if you want to be taking photos. (I actually had my camera tucked in the bra of my bathing suit for safekeeping--hah.) I grabbed onto the side of the kayak holding my camera up in the air for someone to grab it before it might accidentally land in the water again. Vic hustled under the log to get to me and the next thing I heard as his kayak was also tipping over was, “Oh crap.”  By now my brother and niece were laughing while at the same time asking if we were all right. What made the scene even funnier was seeing me holding on to the side of the kayak as if I were in deep water, when Vic just stood up and walked his kayak back to shore. I had my reasons for not wanting to go the shore, but did not share them with Vic. Anyway, we both learned a good lesson about leaning forward rather than to the side in our kayaks. They seem very stable in the water, but obviously can be tipped pretty easily. Too bad Kathryn didn’t capture the whole event on video as it might have been a contender for America’s Funniest Home Videos.

Shortly after our dunking, we approached the end of our paddle marked by the sighting of the bridge.  My brother had called the outfitter about 15 minutes before we reached the take out spot and he arrived in a school bus towing a trailer shortly after we hauled out the boats. We had planned to wait for my brother and niece to come back to get us in two cars, but we lucked out and were able to load our kayaks on the trailer and ride the bus for a minimal fee—shhh.

The trip ended up being about three hours in the river which went by incredibly fast. My brother kept teasing about the alligators being rubber ones that they put on display for tourists, but there was no doubt this was a true old Florida experience. The one distraction from the wildness of the experience was the occasional sound of cars and trucks zooming down the interstate. We only saw about four other kayaks or canoes on the river and, in a few spots, there were fishermen along the bank trying to snag a catfish. Some places where the foliage was thick and the moss from the live oaks hung like old men’s beards from the branches, it seemed like you might hearing dueling banjos in the distance--a little eerie but at the same time quite serene. This was Vic's and my first time paddling a Florida river and we can now say we are quite enthusiastic to do so again sometime soon in the near future.


  1. Yikes..tipping kayaks in "gator infested waters"..

    It sounds like you had a great trip though. The Hillsborough is one of our favorites and we haven't kayaked it for a while now.

    What kind of kayaks do you have?

    1. We have 13' Hobie Revolution kayaks with the Mirage Drive systems (pedals). Obviously we are not too experienced on them, but this was our first capsize. A good lesson for us both, but my camera was toast. I have been talking about getting a better one, so the time has come.

  2. you would do anything to get a new camera, wouldn't you?

  3. It's the "tipping factor" with camera equipment that has us shying away from getting our own kayaks. In those waters, I'd have panicked at the thought of not the gators but the snakes.


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