So how come it is safe I asked? "Well it is because it’s a swamp and there’s plenty of food, which means there are lots of animals" So Brian Faulk told me, as clutching my camera, I clambered unsteadily into the canoe on the Hillsburgh River at Tampa in Florida. Moments later the roar of traffic from the highway had disappeared to be replaced by what sounded like the soundtrack from an old Tarzan film.
I did not feel like Tarzan, old or otherwise, as he pointed out the first of the ‘animals.’
"Look there, she’s a big girl, she must be all of eight to nine feet"
I glanced again at what I’d taken to be a big log on the bank and saw the brown eye of a very large alligator glinting back at me. She looked fat and as though she was resting after a satisfying meal. She was the first of the thirty or so alligators we saw during our two hour paddle through the Hillsburgh Wilderness Park.
We had come onto the water at Possum Jones Fish Camp and were heading though lush green jungle to Morris Bridge, a former logging site.
It was a gentle affair with the water flowing only at about half a mile an hour, but it was important to keep an eye on just where the current was going, for in places the stream branched into several fingers and the slow flowing water was your only guide to the right direction.
We paddled gently round the corner to a wider portion of the river and into a flurry of white wings as a flock of some twenty ibis lifted into the air.
A partially fallen tree leaned overhead and Joe pointed to the brown moss that covered it. "That’s Resurrection Fern, when it rain’s it’ll come alive."
We heard and saw a lot of bird life. A bright red cardinal perched in a tree ahead and a 'limpkin' bird walked ungainly on the bank. It gets it’s name because it walks with
a limp. It’s diet, I was told, includes ‘apple snails’ although
I must admit at that time I was slightly more concerned about the diet of the aligators.
They seemed to spend their time relaxing in the sun usually in the company of a few red bellied turtles who hang around like so many crusty pies.
Joe told me the alligators were "opportunist feeders" andlazily wait around, if they are hungry and a meal happen by, they snap it up. Usually the turtles notice the change in their mood and skedaddle out of the way but the ’gaitors eat more turtles than anything else. If you are into reincarnation try not to come back as a red bellied turtle.
The alligators tend to be shy of us and have a natural fear of people. If you approach them in the canoe they will slip down under the water to hide.
I really didn’t need the warning about dangling fingers in the river although
I did occasionally have to remember to stick the paddle in and push us along, I tended to get distracted by the wonder of it all.
Trees reached up some forty feet above our heads. In summer they would provide a shady canopy, but at that moment the sun shone though in dappled patches on the water.
There were shrubs on the bank, the scent of cinnamon lilies hung on the air and we relaxed amid the cypress, maple and oak, drinking cans of pure Florida orange juice from the cooler box.
Moments later we drifted towards a swirl on the river and
I watched, fascinated as a water-snake glided by corkscrewing over the surface of the stream. This was definitely a wilderness canoe trip and not the swan ride at Disney. Occasionally, because of the falling water level, we had to ease our canoe over submerged logs and navigate through narrow openings round fallen trees. Sometimes it gave me the chance to take close up pictures of slumbering snakes, it all added to the excitement of the day.
The two hours passed very quickly and I was sorry to leave the Hillsborough River or to give it it’s Indian name, the 'Lockcha-popka-chiska' (river one crosses to eat acorns.)
We pulled our canoe ashore at the Morris Bridge Park picnic area and waited for the mini bus with the canoe trailer to take us back to base.
I watched a chameleon change colour on a leaf while Joe told me about the other trips organised by Canoe Escape.
There were two further sections so it would have been possible to have stayed on the river and spend up to six hours paddling as it widened and wended its way through the sixteen thousand acre swamp.
There is also a ‘seventeen runs guided trip’ in which you paddle as part of a group though an area where the river fans out to tributaries. It is a gung ho, 'Indiana Jones' affair, but I rather fancy the idea of the ‘full moon trips’ that are held once a month between September and April.
You take a flashlight and look for bobcats, herons, ’gaitors and generally have a sociable evening with the boats rafted up together .
If you are not convinced about the wisdom of sharing the river with the alligators, to put things into perspective, seven people have died from alligator bites in 50 years.
In Florida, more die from dog bites and bee stings each year. The danger happens when people feed the alligators, who will then approach people looking for food.
There is a $500 fine for feeding them so don’t do it, don’t be taken in by the friendly grin, and don’t worry.....
.."he’s not really imagining how well you’d fit within his skin."
....or at least that’s what I’ve been told!.
UP THE CREEK WITH ALLIGATORS.
IN A CANOE!
Leaflet: Canoe Escape Inc. of Tampa, 9335 East Fowler Avenue, Thonotosassa,
Florida 33592. Tel 0101 813 986 2067.
Tampa Information. Tampa VCB tel 0101 813 223 1111
Flights with: Continental Airlines Tel: 01293 827444