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Discovering the Hillsborough River
Tampa Bay’s Hidden Treasure
with Canoe Escape

by Nick Anis

Nick Anis

Hillsborough River - Photo by Larry W. Arrington - click to enlargeThe Tampa Bay area is a beautiful and exciting place to be with a truly magnificent coastline, pristine beaches, and sparkling bays – a Mecca for water sports. Tampa is definitely a great vacation destination; it's a good-sized city with bustling downtown, has a beautiful historical district, and major attractions such as Busch Gardens, The Lowery Park Zoo, The Florida Aquarium, and The Museum of Science and Industry with its huge IMAX theatre. But few residents and visitors are aware of one of Tampa’s greatest treasures, the largely undeveloped Hillsborough River area and natural preserve – which as it turns out, is a perfect venue for another kind of water sports – paddlesports.

Hillsborough River - waters colored brown by tannic acid - photo by Canoe Escape

In 1991 Joe Faulk and his wife Jean and son Brian combined their affinity for nature and the outdoors and Joe’s 20 years’ experience in the hotel and hospitality industry to create what is now a thriving full-service paddle outfitting company. The Faulk family’s Canoe Escape outfitting touring company offers environmentally-friendly, recreational paddling experiences of a life-time on the incredibly beautiful Hillsborough River, which amazingly, is in close proximity to the Tampa Bay metro area.

Map of Hillsborough River and Canoe Escape Trip Routes - courtesy of Canoe Escape

Canoe Escape, which is actually located in the town of Thonotosassa about mile from the City of Tampa’s border, offers two and four hour, and full-day self-guided canoe and kayak excursions on 30+ environmentally-sensitive and incredibly beautiful miles along the Hillsborough River. As you and your party traverse the river, which is largely undeveloped you’ll pass five parks and preserves spanning more than 20 miles and occupying more than 16,000 acres in the Hillsborough River Wilderness Park system including Crystal Springs Preserve, Hillsborough River State Park, Lettuce Lake Park, and Rotary Park, which provide an opportunity to go ashore amongst pleasant sandy surroundings, cycle, hike, ride horses, fish, in-line skate, and if you wish, visit the restrooms, get a cool drink of water, or perhaps use the picnic areas overlooking the river.

Hillsborough River

The Hillsborough River Canoe Trail is officially designated as part of Florida’s Statewide System of Greenways and Trails. The Hillsborough River has interesting origins – it begins in southwest Pasco County in the Green Swamp as an overflow from the Withlacoochee River, north of US Highway 98. Its headwaters begin as a slow moving sheet flow that percolates through a heavily vegetated riverine forest that has no discernable channel. Approximately a quarter of a mile south of its beginning point, a channel emerges and becomes more defined as a channelized riverine system. The Hillsborough River continues its 54-mile journey in a southwesterly direction through Pasco and Hillsborough Counties to Tampa Bay. The 34.5 mile Hillsborough River Canoe Trail begins at Crystal Springs in Pasco County and terminates in Hillsborough County at the City of Tampa’s Rowlett Park.

Hillsborough River

One of the sources for Tampa Bay’s drinking water, the Hillsborough River is clean, pollution and odor free, and in some areas is spring fed. But for the most part the Hillsborough River is what is known as a dark water river. Along most of its route, the Hillsborough River’s water is slightly stained reddish-brown by the tannic acid (the same thing that gives iced tea that reddish-brown color) that comes from leaves and vegetation that mingle with it as the river flows by.

I’ve have been privileged to visit hundreds of North America’s rivers including my favorites the Snake River, Houstonic River, and the Ottawa River, and I can honestly say the Hillsborough River’s diversity and natural beauty makes it truly one of North America’s most beautiful rivers and a must see for anyone who visits or lives in the Tampa Bay area!

Hillsborough River - Photo by Matt Paulson

The Faulk family's aim is for their guests to discover what they discovered back in 1991 when they started Canoe Escape, that a canoe or kayak on the river is the ideal vantage point to observe wildlife in their natural setting and experience and enjoy the peace and serenity of the natural Florida wildness.  To ensure paddlers can enjoy what the Faulks call "nature's symphony," no radios are allowed on any Canoe Escape excursion.  This is an undeveloped natural environment and there are no billboards, fast food, cars, roads, traffic lights, or that matter people, except for you and your party. Okay – you "might" bump into an occasional fishermen or paddler, but it is not uncommon on these excursions to go for hours without seeing another human being and other signs of the concrete jungle you left behind.

When you walk in Canoe Escape’s facility, you’ll discover it’s also fully equipped canoe, kayak, and paddling accessories shop and you’ll soon be greeted by one of the friendly and professional staff.  You can take a look at oodles of pictures on the bulletin board sent to the Faulks by guests visiting from around the globe of their Hillsborough River excursions, learn about the Hillsborough River Wilderness area, look over the jackets, shirts, hats, books, paddling wares, supplies, get a cold drink or snack, and so on.

Hillsborough River - photo courtesy of Canoe EscapeIf you and your group are embarking on a paddling excursion everyone will need to "sign in" to get started. Next, you’ll need to choose the number and type of canoes and kayaks your group requires (canoes can hold 1-3 adults or 2 adults and 2 children, and kayaks can hold 1-2 passengers), the type of and length paddles you would like, and optional items such as backrests, cooler, dry bag, and ponchos. If you prefer, Canoe Escape’s staff can figure all this out for you. You should not need any insect repellant because the area lacks the shallow and stagnant water that breeds those misquotes. There is quite a bit of shade along the way because of the canopy of trees and other vegetation over much of the river, but you might want to bring some sun block and lip balm, and a cap or hat along just in case. Recommended dress is usually, shorts, tee shirts, and sandals. During the summer there may be occasional (usually brief) rain showers. If you are concerned about the prospect of briefly getting wet, you can bring along a poncho or borrow one from Canoe Escape – but even if it does shower, you will find it cool and refreshing, most likely brief, and that once it stops showering you’ll be dry in about 20 minutes.   

Once you have your equipment and trip figured out, they will provide you with a detailed map and instructions – it’s not that difficult to find your way around, but it’s reassuring to have a map and instructions along. Instead of heading immediately downstream, you might want to take Canoe Escape’s suggestion and check out a nearby lagoon that begins only a few hundred yards upstream and is thick with alligators, turtles and other reptiles, and birdlife. It is here that you will probably see the most gators and get the best pictures, because the wild alligators in their natural environment that congregate here seem almost like animatrics posing for photographs, and while in this lagoon or cove  you will tend to be moving slower than later on when you are paddling downstream.

A complimentary comfortable mini-bus takes you to the launch point (which is about a 12 minute drive). Scheduled pickups downstream are offered through the day, or if you wish you can call ahead anytime for a pickup. During the trip to the launch site the driver, who is also a naturalist guide will tell you a bit about the area’s history and the ecosystem, and give you some useful tips for your trek down the river. The driver/guide will also be happy to answer any questions you may have. It seems like the most common question is "are the alligators in the river a threat?" Guests are reassured to learn that the alligators (although wild) are well-feed with fish and small birds and see the canoes as a threat or predator and fear and avoid canoes, kayaks, and people.

Alagator on log at the Hillsborough River - Phone by Tim Wilmath - click to enlarge

The truth is that even though the river is incredibly beautiful and there is such a rich variety of wildlife, such as almost always seen great blue heron, little blue heron, anhinga, white ibis, osprey, red-shouldered hawk, black vulture, turkey vulture, Florida red-belled turtle, and peninsula cooter; and frequently seen limpkin, black-crowned night heron, green-backed heron, tricolored heron, pileated woodpecker, cardinal, belted kingfisher, great egret, snowy egret, barred owl, eastern phoebe, tufted titmouse, red-winged blackbird, double-breasted cormorant, wild hogs , deer, and gray squirrel; and the occasionally seen rosette spoonbill, wood stork, pied-billed grebe, prothonotary warbler, blue-gray gnatcatcher, American robin, wild turkey, great horned owl, yellow-crowned night heron, bald eagle, river otter, raccoon, wood duck, Florida banded water snake (non-poisonous), and brown water snake (non-poisonous) the ALWAYS seen gators are probably the biggest draw of the trip.  For photos and a printable list of what you will see checkout:

birds in flight on the Hillsborough River - photo by Canoe EscapeSome of the critters like the wild pigs that like to forage along the riverbank can be heard before they are seen, and you’ll need to keep your voices down and paddle quietly if you want to see them before these shy creatures scurry away. The alligators and turtles like to sun themselves on logs and the river-bank and generally won’t dive into the water unless you come too close. When you get too close, if you think the alligators are trying to dive into your canoe or bite your paddle – sorry to disappoint you, but you are mistaken – they are just trying to flee you by diving into the water, where they are most at home and feel the safest. The herons and other large birds like to spread their wings to dry and warm themselves in the sun on a limb overhanging the river, and they will also take flight if you startle them by getting too close – sometimes they swoop low as they take off because it takes these big birds a few seconds to break into full flight.

Canoe Escape provides quality canoes and kayaks that are durable, quiet, stable, roomy, and comfortable which the driver/guide single-handedly unloads, sets up, and launches for you. Everyone must have a life-jacket, but if you are an adult who is a competent swimmer, since the water is rarely above your head and there is either no or a gentle current (usually .5 to 1.5 miles per hour), you don’t have to wear your lifejacket and you can use it as a cushion.

On the way over or before you launch the driver/guide will also be happy to give you and the rest of your party paddling pointers – but for some reason novice paddlers are notorious for not wanting instructions sort of like the preverbal men refusing to ask directions along the highway type situation. But if you have never paddled (or have not been to summer camp where virtually everyone is taught paddling), you should ask for them to give you a quick lesson on the "J" stroke, using the paddle as an rudder, the best way to paddle in your position, and how to paddle as a team. And should you get hooked on paddling as many have, Canoe Escape actually has American Canoe Association instructors on staff who give advanced lessons in the excellent art of canoe paddling.

Canoe Escape is a family owned and operated business; and in addition to the Faulk Family (Joe, Jean, and Brian), the remainder of the staff is comprised of environmental science and eco-tourism grad students that have been with them for years. Canoe Escape is highly respected for having initiated the areas only interpretive guided trip program and for their efforts to preserve the Hillsborough River Wilderness area. In the past 14 years, thanks to Canoe Escape and the Faulk family’s vision, thousands of local, national, and international visitors have paddled down the Hillsborough River.

This Hillsborough River’s diversity makes it possible for paddlers to experience and explore a variety of ecosystems including: a quiet-water section for wildlife observation through a tannin-stained, Spanish moss-draped cypress swamp; a hardwood hammock where crystal-clear, spring water and limerock outcroppings create small "mini-rapids"; and an "Indiana Jones" trip through the untamed 17 Runs Swamp; and moonlight trips (October through April).   Keep in mind there are only a few rivers in the State of Florida (which is mostly flat) that have any rapids at all – therefore, experiencing mini rapids in Florida is a real treat.

In 1999 based on the success of their Hillsborough River excursions Canoe Escape began offering trips on various other Tampa Bay area waterways including both salt and freshwater systems. If you want an equally thrilling experience try the Crystal Springs trip where you will see different vegitation and animals, and experience some level 2 (moderate) rapids. Rapids are rare in Florida because the entire state is basically flat. Canoe Escape is also involved with a variety of Tampa Bay area promotion efforts including the Tampa/Hillsborough Convention and Visitors Association, Visit Florida, Tampa Outdoor Adventures, and helps to promote "paddlesports" an "Eco Tourism" through membership and participation in the Florida Professional Paddlesports Association, The Professional Paddlesports Association, The American Canoe Association, the Hillsborough River Greenways Task Force, Tampa Audubon Society, the National Association for Interpretation, and the EcoTourism Society.

Hillsborough River - on the lookout for wildlife... - photo by Canoe Escape

Believe it or not, on any trips Canoe Escape offers, there really isn’t that much paddling or effort required – even an overweight out of shape over-forty-year-old like me can do it. And not only is canoeing and kayaking a great sport, that lets you get fresh air (and as much or as little exercise as you wish), it also offers an excellent way to view wildlife, take some once-in-a-lifetime pictures, fish, socialize and reconnect with your family and friends, instill teamwork, enjoy peace and serenity, reduce stress, and rediscover man's connection to the planet.

Reservations are not required, but advisable – especially for the weekends. Canoe Escape recommends you bring yourself or obtain from them water, soft drinks, snacks, lunch, sunscreen/lip balm, hat, sunglasses, eyeglass strap/cord, shoes (you don’t mind getting wet), disposable camera, non-Styrofoam cooler, dry bag, appropriate dress for the weather, and also a sense of adventure. There are 7 trips offered; tandem canoe or kayak rentals range from $19.50 to $27.50 per passenger; no charge for children under 12.

Canoe Escape, Inc.
9335 East Fowler Avenue
Thonotosassa, FL 33592

Phone: 813-986-2067


Photos by Florida Park Service, Canoe Escape, Larry W. Arrington, Matt Paulson, and Tim Wilmath.

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Nick Anis is a food, wine, and travel and technology writer with over 24 books in print published by McGraw-Hill, Random House, Bantam, Ziff-Davis, Tab, and others. Nick's articles have appeared in The Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, West Coast Media, The Family Publications Group, The Weekly News, and Travel-Watch.  His beats include food, travel, snow and waters sports, entertainment, family recreation, consumer electronics, home improvement, and automotive.  He is responsible for the Restaurant Row Ethnic Dining Guide, co-published by the Long Beach Press Telegram.  Nick is an accomplished downhill skier, PADI certified SCUBA diver, and when he's not sitting on his butt goofing off, enjoys a variety of active recreation including tennis, riding motorcycles, ATVs, wave runners, snow machines, horses, skeet and trap shooting he's also taken a stab at riding camels, donkeys, elephants, ostriches, lamas, dolphins, Reindeer, bulls, mechanical bulls, and buffalo.  Nick is a member (A Secretary/Treasurer) of the International Food, Wine, and Travel Writers Association (IFWTWA), a member of the North American Snow Sports Journalist Association (NASJA), Computer Press Association, The Writer's Guild, and listed in Books in Print, Media Map, and Press Access.  You can reach Nick at


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