“Abandon hope all ye who enter here” is the well-crafted wooden sign which greets us as we reach a fork in the river.
Of course, we recklessly disregard it. Our eyes, after all, are WIDE OPEN.
We are to live to regret that ill-advised decision…
This disconcerting sign stands as a dire warning for paddlers reaching the upstream gateway of what is known as the “17 Runs,” where the Hillsborough River braids into a confusing, confounding, torturously twisting maze of small river channels.
The paddling brochure I have read before our trip states that even “expert paddlers” often get lost and lose the main river channel as they seek to negotiate this swampy portion of the Hillsborough to a downstream destination.
I have paddled nearly every river in north central and central Florida. The Hillsborough remains one of the last major watercourses I have yet to conquer, and it is billed as a very attractive river. With all my experience, and the strong desire I have to sample one of my few remaining Florida paddle challenges, I decide to disregard the warnings. After all, 17 Runs is just upstream from a major metropolitan area, and we are paddling in the heat of the summer so there is no chance of suffering hypothermia should we get lost. I am also picturing the swamp to be a tree-less, grassy marsh, not a thick forest of trees. How hard can it be??
I have opted not to have my group paddle an upstream portion as the put-in point near Crystal Springs seems difficult. Thick trees and uncertain car parking is what I have found in a scoping investigation the day before. The next segment is quite brief (typically an hour-long paddle). Following this and 17 Runs, the brochure indicates that motorboats are allowed and can be expected. Not a pleasant or peaceful prospect for a paddler, so I opt against that segment as well.
That leaves us with the short segment from the Hillsborough River State Park (where I had previously, several months earlier, visited and noticed from an overlook that the river through the park looked extremely scenic), and the 17 Runs segment.
The decision must be carefully considered, as one of the people in my group is a “kayaking virgin,” which means I must be sure to select a trip that is not terribly difficult or otherwise technical.
My group of paddlers has assembled at a friend’s house in Tampa. We are to meet the friend for dinner at a sushi restaurant, then go contra dancing. We gather on the back porch and go over the maps and brochures so that everyone is aware of the plan. We are to set out first thing on the morning after the dance to try to capture as much “cool” weather as we can in this sultry Florida August.
The morning after the dance, as seems to always be the case with a group, our departure time for the Hillsborough River is late, and we are not in the water until 11:30 am.
Starting from a boat launch at Hillsborough River State Park, we enjoy a few hours of lovely, peaceful paddling. The river current is nearly undetectable. Very slow-moving. It is a relatively wide river, even this far upstream.
We are enjoying the day as we paddle, feeling fortunate to have such an attractive river all to ourselves (as is commonly the case, we see almost no other boaters).
About two hours into our paddle and after having eaten lunch (which we do by lashing our boats together at a mid-channel tree trunk – the sandy banks are too populated with hungry mosquitoes), we encounter The Sign.
“Probably just a sign erected by government employees designed to amuse paddlers,” I assure myself. “Surely, if what lies ahead is a navigational nightmare, there would be a skull and crossbones sign FORBIDDING further downstream travel.”
So we foolishly, naively, almost cheerfully press on. Unaware of the misery that lies ahead of us.
Almost immediately, we come upon our first downed tree trunk stretching across the river, and requiring us to get off our kayaks and stand in waist-deep river water on a soft, mucky bottom to lift our boats over the trunk. Optimistically, I try to comfort myself that this is just an aberration. The challenge of the 17 Runs is NAVIGATION, as I understand it. It is NOT having to engage in multiple hours of portaging boats over large trees. And I can manage difficult navigation, as long as I am careful to observe which stream branch seems to be carrying the strongest river current.
But navigation turns out to be the least of our worries. Instead, what is ahead of us is a series of what seems like HUNDREDS of downed, enormous tree trunks which have fallen across the now narrow, shallow river channel. We find ourselves constantly having to get out of our kayak and into the water so that we can lift our boats over a tree trunk. Several times, we stub our toes or painfully bump our knees and shins into hidden trees under the water surface. And there is always the dread, in a Florida swamp, that one will be the unfortunate recipient of a water moccasin bite, or make the potentially fatal (and always horrifying) blunder of bumping into a large Florida alligator. What makes these potentially awful attacks particularly disconcerting is that when one is in the middle of a steamy Florida swamp remote from roads or development, one is not at all likely to be able to be evacuated FOR SEVERAL HOURS by emergency medical personnel in the event of a medical emergency.
After two hours of this hopeless slogging and portaging, we are all exhausted and exasperated. Each of us feels the temptation to turn back to where we came, as we are now convinced that we have a great many miles of worsening conditions ahead of us.
But there is no turning back.
We are too far downstream and have battled through a horrific number of obstacles. It would be impossible to find the motivation to re-live the horrors of what we had just struggled through on the swamp behind us.
Our only chance is to keep trying to follow the main channel by watching the stream flow, and hoping to soon be able to reach the downstream terminus of the swamp.
I look into the faces of my companions, and it is an unmistakable message of extreme fatigue. The joking and smiles have all but left us. “No whiners,” I insist as we started our adventure at the put-in point. I am thankful that this is the case, as my companions are being troopers despite the misery. Even after hours of what seems like a hopeless situation. We will survive. We will not abandon all hope…
The obstacles vary. Sometimes, one encounters tree trunks that are either partially immersed or otherwise too low to get under. Other times, the tree trunk allows “duck under” travel as the kayaker is able to lie back and slowly slip under to pass the trunk. And often (particularly in the summer), we must struggle through thick beds of emergent vegetation. Clearly, the navigability of these obstacles is quite temperamental. When water levels are slightly higher, trunks lying across the river (and the emergent vegetation) can simply be paddled over. When the river is slightly lower, it is easier to duck under the more elevated trunks.
Our path is blocked by countless spider webs in addition to downed tree trunks and tree limbs that have not be chainsawed to clear a route for paddlers. A sure sign that the course we have taken has not seen paddlers for quite a while. Clearly, as James T. Kirk would point out, we have gone where no man has gone before (at least for a considerable period of time).
Overall, the river segment we choose to paddle is remarkably free of development, and is flanked by a very attractive, stereotypical Florida forest canopy (at least outside of the 17 Runs). We are fortunate to have encounters with quite a few large wading birds. Mostly, we see snowy egret and Great Blue Heron – one of which was quite tolerant of us and would stand, stately and motion-lessly only a few feet from us when we pass him 4 or 5 times. (wading birds on rivers tend to fly ahead of paddlers down the river, which often leads to multiple encounters with the same birds, and these birds must be confused by how often they must repeatedly fly away from the same group of paddlers)
The water along this segment is teeming with large fish as well. We see quite a few gar fish, catfish, and bass.
We are exhilarated, after 8 hours, to finally come upon the bridge where we have pre-positioned one of our vehicles. One of the very few signs of civilization.
We can hardly walk. Sore knees. Sore necks. Sore backs. Sore feet. Sore hands.
I apologize profusely to my companions. And I point out to the group that this will be an unforgettable experience. One day, we will be able to look back and laugh at this day. That my “virgin” kayaker can now consider herself to be an advanced kayaker who has now done something that even most experts have not done.
For now, though, we hug each other in relief, and feel eager to get home, where a shower and comfortable bed await us.