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The Hillsborough River
Waters colored brown by tannic acid...The Hillsborough River flows 54 miles from its head waters in the Green Swamp to its mouth in Hillsborough Bay, a portion of Tampa Bay, Florida's largest open-water estuary. The Hillsborough has an estimated drainage area of 675 square miles. The watershed extends over parts of three counties, Hillsborough, Pasco, and Polk. From nearly pristine conditions, the river winds its way to Tampa Bay through rural, suburban, and urban settings. For the most part the Hillsborough is what is known as a dark or black water river. The water is stained reddish-brown by the tannic acid (the same thing that gives iced tea that reddish-brown color). It comes from the decaying leaves and other vegetation in the swamp.

The Green Swamp, approximately 850 square miles of swampy flatlands and sand ridges, was designated as an Area of Critical State Concern by Florida in 1979. Not only the Hillsborough River, but also the Withlacoochee, the Peace, and the Ocklawaha Rivers have their origins there.

The Hillsborough actually starts as an overflow of the Withlacoochee River. It begins as a slow-moving sheet flow that percolates through a heavily vegetated riverine forest that has no real channel. For most of the year, at least for paddling purposes, the Hillsborough River begins where Crystal Springs empties 40 million gallons a day into the river keeping it runnable even in times of severe drought.

The Hillsborough River is rich in history dating back thousands of years. Early indigenous populations had encampments along the river and in the surrounding area 10,000 years ago. Native Americans, Paleo-Indians, the Timucua, the Calusa, the Seminoles, and others are known to have inhabited sites along the river.

The first of the European expeditions to arrive that discovered the Hillsborough River was the famous Spanish explorer, Navarez in the 1500s. Hernando de Soto passed through here and in his wake just about wiped out the Native American population. This area was also the site of several Second Seminole Indian War battles.

The Timucua, who lived in the area now known as Tampa, called their town, Mocoso, and the river, the Mocoso River. The Spanish christened it the River of San Julian de Arriaga. The English were the ones who named it the Hillsborough River after the Earl of Hillsborough who was Britain's colonial secretary. The Seminoles called the river, Lockcha-Popka-Chiska, the river one crosses to eat acorns.

A gathering of IbisThe River of the Golden Ibis by Gloria Jahoda, (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1973 out of print), thankfully now available again in paperback (University Press of Florida, 2000), is a fascinating history of the Hillsborough River and indeed the whole Tampa Bay area. It's a history that reads like a novel. The first paragraph of the prologue sets the tone and draws the reader into the world of the Hillsborough River.

"The Hillsborough begins in the Green Swamp, nine hundred square miles of central Florida wilderness where white ibises drift in the shadows over willow-bordered pools. From high water oaks grey Spanish moss trails softly. The stillness is broken by the songs of Carolina wrens in the thickets, by the insistent voices of leopard frogs, by the calling of rain crows on slow summer afternoons. The smells are acrid: tannin-stained sloughs and the sourness of the hydrogen sulfide and methane gases that rise when the mud is turned by the foot of some wild creature, by a rare canoe, by a storm. Pileated woodpeckers rap high in the pines in the drier places, where the ground rises a foot or two and bare sand shows under pinestraw that glistens rusty in a fitful swampland sun. The Green Swamp is a trackless place. Its milky clusters of crinum lilies spend their beauty unseen by men, and bobcats prowl the tangles unafraid. The world of the white ibises is, as yet, inviolate. When the light strikes their feathers through the canopy above, they shimmer in a blaze of gold."

Henry Plant brought the railroad to Tampa in the late 1800s and built the Tampa Bay Hotel along the river whose minarets, now part of the University of Tampa, are a Tampa landmark. The Hillsborough River was the site of Florida's first hydroelectric dam in 1897. It was blown up in 1898 by local ranchers who claimed that their best grazing lands had become part of the new reservoir. It was rebuilt in 1899. Again in 1916 the ranchers tried to destroy the dam. A hurricane did rupture the dam in 1933 after which it was sold to Tampa for a water supply reservoir and rebuilt in 1946. Portions of the 1899 structure still remain as part of today's structure. Currently 75% of Tampa's drinking water supply comes from the Hillsborough River. Native Americans, Spanish explorers, pirates, soldiers, logging, ranching, railroads, and fish camps are all part of the river's rich history.

On the lookout for wildlife...The Hillsborough River is enjoyed by paddlers, birders, fisherman, photographers, hikers, and others at the wealth of parks that are located along its banks. The Hillsborough River has been favorably compared to the Amazon and the Florida Everglades as one of the great places to view wildlife.

Hillsborough River State Park
Built by the Civilian Conservation Corps and opened in 1938, the Hillsborough River State Park is one of Florida's oldest parks. Fort Foster, a re-creation of Fort Alabama (an outpost on the Fort King Military Trail that connected Fort Brooke in Tampa to Ocala) is located along the river within the park's boundaries.

The Hillsborough River State Park contains the state's southernmost outcropping of Suwannee limestone. This outcropping creates a small set of rapids that are a rarity in Florida. Park activities include picnicking, nature trails, camping, hiking, and paddling.

The Wilderness Park
Originally purchased by the Southwest Florida Water Management District's Hillsborough River Basin Board for flood control and water quality protection, the Wilderness Park has become a wonderful asset to Hillsborough County. The Wilderness Park has four parks along the river that provide picnic areas, restrooms, and access for paddling as well as three additional sites for either on or off-road bicycling and horseback riding.

Nature's Classroom
Also located within the Wilderness Park is Nature's Classroom, an award winning outdoor educational facility for sixth graders in Hillsborough County. Nearly 10,000 students and faculty have experienced the Hillsborough River first hand by viewing animals and plants in their natural habitats.

Lettuce Lake Park
One of Hillsborough County's regional parks, Lettuce Lake Park is very popular. The "lake" is actually a shallow, fingerlike portion of the Hillsborough River. It has a 3,500' boardwalk through the swamp that ends at a tall observation tower that overlooks the river and "lake". Lettuce Lake Park is home to Arc in the Park, a Tampa Audubon Resource Center that fosters a culture of conservation and an environmental ethic. Lettuce Lake Park also has a great playground area for younger children.

A number of small parks are located along the river in the suburban and urban areas.

Drifting throught lillypads...Hillsborough River Designations
  • Florida Recreational Canoe Trail
  • Outstanding Florida Water
  • Florida Ecosystem Management Model
  • Florida Sesquicentennial Greenway
  • Florida Wildlife Viewing Area
  • Florida Birding & Wildlife Trail

The Hillsborough River was chosen by Canoe & Kayak Magazine as one of "North America's Best Close to Home Paddling Adventures" in its May 1995 issue.

The Hillsborough River has been fortunate over the years to have inspired many people to protect its beauty and wildlife. It has been studied, monitored, and planned for. At least 25 various plans exist that address a variety of issues.

Canoe Escape was very actively involved with the Hillsborough River Greenways Task Force (HRGTF). The Task Force was a coalition of public, private, regulatory, environmental, and corporate organizations and bodies. It was founded in 1992 by a group of concerned citizens (both in the public and private sectors) to seek to investigate, plan, and implement programs for the permanent protection of the natural resources of the upper Hillsborough River Basin.

Some of the Task Force's accomplishments were: The "Green Book" a discussion of some 20 imminent issues within the watershed; the delineation of core and buffer areas of the Hillsborough River Greenway; the extension of the Outstanding Florida Water designation; designation of a portion of the river as a Florida Recreational Canoe Trail; formulation of a coordinated linear infrastructure plan (CLIP) to determine where linear corridors should cross greenways; and the development of the Frog Listening Network.

Some of work of the Hillsborough River Greenways Task Force (HRGTF) continues today as the Hillsborough River Watershed Alliance.

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