A punishing paddle

By TERRY TOMALIN, Outdoors Editor
Published December 7, 2007


Eric Hornsby smiled when I asked him about paddling a stretch of the Hillsborough River called Seventeen Runs.

"It's pretty rough," the Hillsborough County park ranger said. "A lot of people get lost out there."

In its upper reaches, the Hillsborough is a deep, fast-moving river. But get downriver from the state park and the terrain changes drastically. The sky disappears, replaced by a canopy of towering cypress trees as the river spreads out into a vast floodplain.

"They say the river has 17 different runs," Hornsby said. "But that's not true. There are a lot more than that."

Ranger Jack Coleman, who has worked at Hillsborough County's Dead River Park since the early 1980s, said he has lost track of the number of people who have lost their way in this riverine swamp over the years.

"We had to go in and rescue a whole Boy Scout troop once," he said. "They were lucky. At least they didn't have to spend the night out there like some of the other people."

At first, Coleman tried to warn paddlers before they entered "The Runs." Eventually, he got tired of people not listening, so he posted a sign at the entrance of the bewildering stretch of river.

It reads: "Abandon all hope ye who enter here."

Spiders, snakes and big bull gators

Seventeen Runs is one of those wild places where animals that usually steer clear of humans like to roam. Several years ago, Coleman spotted a Florida panther near the entrance to the swamp.

The Runs, with its myriad of feeder streams and dead-end creeks, is also a favorite haunt of big bull gators. One particularly troublesome beast, nicknamed "Big Joe" by the locals, used to stand guard at the entrance to The Runs, that is until he was spotted stalking some Boy Scouts, and a trapper took him out.

But standing in chest-deep water, trying to lift a 17-foot canoe above your head and up over a log, you can't help but feel vulnerable.

"Should I be worried about gators?" I asked Hornsby as I climbed back into the canoe.

"No," he said. "Just spiders and snakes."

Nobody had paddled before us for several days, so the narrow channel was crisscrossed with the webs of banana spiders, several of which found their way down the back of my shirt.

While the bite of a spider may hurt, it is not nearly as dangerous as that of a water moccasin. These pit vipers like to hang out on fallen trees. And thanks to the hurricanes of recent years, we would have 40 or 50 to climb over before the day was through.

The Staircase

Two miles into the 6-mile trip, we hit an area littered with fallen trees.

"I call this area 'The Staircase,'" Hornsby said. "That is because you do more climbing than paddling."

The rangers who patrol this area of the river don't make any attempt to clear or cut through the logjams.

"We want to preserve the river in its natural state," Hornsby said. "A lot of plants and wildlife need these fallen trees to survive."

Growing up in nearby Thonotosassa, the 30-year-old ranger often paddled the Hillsborough as a child.

"This was our playground," he said. "After a while, you get to know it pretty well."

But even a veteran such as Hornsby can get turned around in the floodplain. "I was with a couple of other rangers," he said. "We eventually figured out which direction to go by watching the flight paths of planes coming in and out of Tampa International."

Mud and poison ivy

After our 30th or so "pullover," we decided to try another tactic and go around the obstacles. Getting out of the canoe wasn't easy - the water along the bank was 3 feet deep - and with one misstep, I sunk in up to my waist.

Climbing out of the water - my arms weak from shoulder-pressing the canoe - I grasped for the nearest vine.

"Watch out," Hornsby warned. "That's poison ivy."

Out of the water and onto terra firma we tried to drag the canoe around the logjam. But I didn't take two steps before I sank up to my knees in mud.

In 2005 during the United States Adventure Racing Association's national championships, 65 teams of diehard endurance athletes raced through the Hillsborough's watershed. Many were cut and bleeding from bushwhacking through the brush earlier in the day. Later, many came down with the debilitating bacterial infection leptospirosis, which, if left untreated, can cause death.

I looked down at my legs, rubbed raw by climbing over countless logs, and hoped I would escape unscathed.

"I wouldn't worry about it," Hornsby assured me. "This water may look dirty, but that is just the tannins from the trees. This is a pristine swamp."


Five hours after we started, the river morphed into a great open floodplain. Fallen trees no longer blocked our progress. Now, the enemy was water hyacinths.

Hornsby had brought along a machete to hack our way through the mats of the invasive water plant species that has choked so many Florida waterways. But we must have lost it at one of our pullovers.

Luckily, they had not overcome the native vegetation and within a few minutes were free and clear.

Eventually, we came upon a kayak fisherman near the last pullover before he could go upstream into Seventeen Runs.

"Any luck?" I asked him.

He shook his head, no.

Then he asked, "What's up there?"

My response: "No place that you would want to go."

Times Outdoors Editor Terry Tomalin can be reached at tomalin@tampabay.com or 727 893-8808.

If you go

The 6-mile trip from Dead River Park to John B. Sargeant Park north of Thonotosassa took about 51/2 hours, which was relatively quick. This trip should be attempted only by experienced paddlers. Bring a map, compass, cell phone and lights in case you end up on the river after dark.

The Hillsborough River has many good paddling trips for beginners and intermediate paddlers. For more information, go to www.canoeescape.com.