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Grab your oars, get paddling

Published October 29, 2004

Canoeing down the southern stretch of the Hillsborough River, it's hard to imagine the Indian villages, lumberyards and industrial warehouses that once lined the banks.

The modest houses, apartment buildings and boat docks offer few clues into the river's rich, diverse past.

BUT HISTORY buffs know the story.

They know that Indians settled the area thousands of years ago.

They know that railroad king Henry B. Plant built the riverfront Tampa Bay Hotel in 1891 to host dignitaries.

They know that ranchers fuming over the construction of a dam blew it up.

Too bad most Tampans don't know it.

We often forget that the river flows through the heart of the city and provides the bulk of our drinking water. When we want to enjoy a water view, we head to beaches in Clearwater and St. Pete.

Places like Chicago and San Antonio, Texas, boast about their riverfront locations. Here, we assign the river a tired cliche: a neglected gem that has yet to shine.

TAMPA MAYOR Pam Iorio seems determined to change that. Last Friday, she canoed down the river with about a dozen graduate students from the Florida Studies Program at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

The trip was part of visiting scholar Tom Hallock's Rivers of Florida class. The mission: experience the river like ducks, taking note of the scenery and neighborhoods, and compare it with other rivers across the state.

The class had recently paddled the northern leg of the Hillsborough River northeast of Temple Terrace. They described the upper part as pristine and natural, the lower part, residential and noisy. Instead of dense forest and brush, they saw groomed lawns and seawalls.

Taking a break at one of the city-owned green spaces along the river, Iorio told students about the projects planned to open up the river: Waterworks Park, behind Stetson University's new law campus; Bank of America's residential project at Palm Avenue; a boathouse and sports center at Julian Lane Riverfront Park; and the crown jewel, Riverwalk.

Imagine, she said, dressed in not-so-signature jeans and a T-shirt, walking for 2 entire miles along the river from Tampa Heights to Channelside. It'll happen, she assures. Just recently, crews started work on tiny riverfront parks along Ashley Drive.

"Lots of eyes are looking at the river," she said.

It hasn't always been that way.

Even after Plant put Tampa on the place-to-go map with his hotel, the city was slow to grab the baton, treating the river as basically an obstacle that had to be crossed.

"I don't think a building in Tampa has been built with the river in mind," said Gary Mormino, a history professor and co-director of the Florida Studies Program who went on the canoe trip.

Cases in point: The city built two parking garages along the river, including the Poe garage next to the Tampa Museum of Art. More recently, the school district chose a windowless design for waterfront Blake High School.

Ray Arsenault, the other USF program director, said the river has an almost "invisible presence" in Tampa.

Changing that perception will take time.

So grab an oar and get paddling. The water's cool and filled with history.

THE LAST DROP: Guavaween, the area's biggest Halloween party, hits Ybor on Saturday. Let's hope we don't have a repeat of last weekend, when one man was killed trying to break up a fight between two others in their 30s at the seemingly tame New World Brewery. Looks like teens aren't the only ones causing problems in Ybor.

- Susan Thurston can be reached at 226-3394 or

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