One of my all-time favorite paddling locations is the upper Hillsborough River in Tampa, FL. Without boring you with too many statistics, the Hillsborough River is nearly 60 miles long, beginning in a swamp, winding through wilderness and then civilization until it finally flows into the Hillsborough Bay in Downtown Tampa.
I’ve been paddling sections of this river regularly for more than 10 years in a quite a selection of kayaks and canoes. While paddling, an abundance of wildlife is always present. Many varieties of herons and egrets are common. The pink spoonbill is there to provide the perfect splash of color. There are otters and feral pigs, deer, raccoons and armadillos, and plenty of turtles. I honestly have not seen many snakes, nor, sadly, have I yet to see a skunk ape (Florida’s version of Bigfoot). Of course, not from lack of looking.
My favorite river resident however, is the alligator. This time of year, particularly, is ripe with the smell of cheap cologne and lame pickup lines. That’s right, this would be alligator mating season. The section of the river running about 2 miles downriver from Trout Creek Park seems to be a popular hangout for alligators to congregate while lookin fer love. Numerous flat areas, pseudo-beaches, which are not accessible by hikers provide the stage for displays of alligator mate-worthiness. To be honest, the display is seldom more than just lying there smiling.
I have been observing this ritual for most of the 10 years I have been exploring this river from a kayak. With the addition of my first Oru Kayak, a Bay, I started paddling this white wonder in the quest for alligator. At 12 feet, the Bay is, by many comparisons, smaller than some of the biggest ‘boys’ out there. Thankfully, I have never seen any overt, threatening behavior from any alligator in this portion of the river. The absence of people feeding or harassing the alligators makes the experience of paddling in their vicinity relatively safe and stress free.
Now, as we begin to truly embrace the summer months, the larger alligators will disappear from regular view and the process of hatching the hundreds, if not thousands of alligator eggs will begin. Before long, the many fallen trees will be the means of displaying a dozen or more, tiny, extremely cute alligators perched head to tail for only the paddlers will see.
So, with mating season coming to a close, what’s a paddler to do to find new excitement? That’s easy. We’ll just choose a dark, moonless night and enjoy the sounds and ambiance of pitch black conditions. I am anxious to take the Bay or maybe my Coast out to be part of the night. I have yet to paddle at night with these boats. The translucent, internally lit, hull should greatly add to the eeriness of paddling alone at night. A strong flashlight scanning the shoreline will be rewarded with the reflection of the orange glow of alligator eyes. What is not to love about that? As long as you don’t hear the gravely alligator whispers in the background asking, ‘what’s white and crunchy on the outside and chewy and gooey on the inside?'
Keith Souders, Tampa, FL
Oru Bay and Oru Coast