Knowing the history and boundaries of an area you are exploring is very important in reading the landscape. The Hillsborough River flows 56 miles from its headwaters in the Green Swamp to its mouth in Tampa Bay, and its watershed extends over parts of three counties; Hillsborough, Pasco and Polk. The history of human activity in Hillsborough River State Park dates to prehistoric times when native people hunted, fished and foraged along the river’s flood plain.
In the late 1700s, Wills Hills, the British Colonial Secretary and Lord Earl of Hillsborough, was given jurisdiction over the area. After surveyors were sent to report on the new colony, the river needed a name, and it was given the name Hillsborough River.
Many events occurred over the years, including the building of forts and bridges during the Seminole wars. In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) worked in the area surrounding the river to establish it as a public park.
As my buddies and I have explored this magical river, the offerings of nature have been both varied and eye-opening, including a series of rapids created by the river as it flows over outcroppings of Suwannee limestone. We have paddled over the challenging waters of the 17 Runs, which took many hours of hard work, pulling our kayaks over logs and portaging to get down the river.
Cypress trees with glistening knees, pine flatwoods and hardwood hammocks fill the woods on any trip down the river. Animals include turtles, woodpeckers, owls, turkeys, deer and occasional alligators. Limpkins, herons, egrets, anhingas and many other varieties of Florida birdlife fill the air with flight and sound.
Reading the landscape also requires you to be aware of the man-made environment. One of the roughest portions for me was closer to downtown, along the University of Tampa and along the urban buildings and cement borders that line the shores; when the big boats come by, they provide a white-water experience that requires extra caution and no inviting shores for respite. Unless you like this kind of adventure, I would advise you to paddle in the more scenic and natural domains of the river.
By improving your skills in reading the Florida landscape, it naturally follows that you will connect more with nature. All of us need more ‘Vitamin N’—Nature—and fortunately you do not need to travel far to be in the middle of it.
Get out and enjoy The Great Florida Outdoors!