Florida Canoe Trips and the Real Florida

Florida has some absolutely wonderful sites for canoeing but I think my favorite is from Crystal Springs park on the Hillsboro River, down to Hillsboro State Park and maybe even further. Putting in on the bridge over the river where it’s barely 10 ft wide, you have to arrange for drop off and pickup. And if this section hasn’t been floated recently, it may be jammed with debris from upstream and you may be forced to get out and push or pull till you pass into navigable waters. At this point you will pass Cyrstal Springs and be in incredibly clear water. This is real swamp…you probably won’t see another person or canoe for the next 4-5 hrs. Be aware, this is not for beginner woodsmen/canoeists. The water itself only has one or two sets of small rapids, but the snakes and alligators are something for the trained persons. And you have to remember how far away help is under those circumstances. Nevertheless, I would take some of my referring men and their kids as well as my own in-laws and out-laws on this beautiful experience. My referring men were frequently not country boys and I would take the time to have a discussion with them that would go something like this: : “The river is very tortuous and has many many switchbacks that happen very quickly and in a short radius. The man, generally being the heaviest, will get into the rear seat and the wife or girlfriend, in the front. (it has always been this way). There are spiders on the banks and in the weeds at the waters edge. They don’t bite but women have a way of screaming at them that distracts me. To be able to actually steer a canoe, you generally have to be moving faster than the water and this river is about 3-5 miles per hour. Those in the front will have to learn to pull the canoe sideways from the front with the paddle and the rear person will have to learn how to paddle to accomplish the best steering. You WILL run into the banks until this rule is learned and the man (in the rear) will tell the wife to paddle harder as it’s easier to steer that way, but she will have to learn to divert the direction of travel with her canoe. There will be a period of screaming and then of cussing, then a period of dead silence as my words are reflected upon, and finally when you have steering and paddling down properly, you will enjoy the rest of the trip.” Oh how I wish I had carried a tape recorder. I gave that lecture plenty of times and it always turned out the same way. It would be rare to run up on an alligator that wasn’t alert, or a snake that was poisonous but I did see it happen. Never had any bad experiences in that regard.

I did take my family and my sisters family on the Alafia once after a rain. We passed a submerged canoe and a lady with a little girl on the side of the rain swollen creek that was doing in excess of 10 mph, but they said they were ok. We didn’t have any problems but in retrospect…it was really a dumb thing for me to do. I do, on occasion, dumb things but I don’t always tell everybody. An overturned canoe in that stream would have led to drownings. I can handle myself but to try to handle a group under such circumstances is different.

A friend and colleague who was an intern when I was surgical resident, Stan Kelly, D.O….who is now a general in the military, came to see me and I took him on the Hillsboro River trip. Totally uneventful till we got to the park. There is a set of rapids in the park that one has to “hit” at a sharp angle and fast. Well, we didn’t make it and I was giggling about overturning. Only to see Stan…very blanched and about 6 ft from a small gator who just happened to be there at the same time. No attack, no excitement, just a Lot of heavy breathing and fast talking till I got the canoe upright and Stan back into it.

Lem Griffin D.O. was a general practitioner at Tampa Osteopathic and we became friends.  Like me, he was an outdoorsman, fisherman, hunter and country.  Shortly after I moved to Florida, we were talking and he told me not to kill any of the armadillos one would see commonly around the countryside.  He said they were easy to catch and edible and were valuable for lost hunters and those stuck in unfortunate circumstances.  It wasn’t too long after that talk that I was driving north of Tampa in the country and saw an armadillo in a field.  I got out and tried to catch it.  They can run so fast and make such quick right angled turns that I was impressed in their ability.  Easily as fast as a jackrabbit.  I had another occasion to try to catch one, and I took off my shirt and threw the shirt on one to try to stop it….to no avail.  I even kicked one and it went tumbling forward then rolled forward to a gallop and ran off.  I told Lem about this and he laughed.  He explained they have very poor eyesight and have sensory organs in their feet.  If one walks quietly and slowly, one can walk right up to and pick one up by the tail.  Their hind feet have large toenails and strong thrusts that one has to treat carefully.  I can say for certain that this works, you can actually walk right up to one and pick it up.  Lem had been bragging about his compost pit in his back yard.  He had such a nice big compost pit and was really enjoying the nice big fishing worms that he would use to catch fish.  One day he told me to bring my camera over to take pix of the cute little baby armadillo they had caught and turned loose in his chainlink fenced in back yard.  I couldn’t make it that day but a day or two later when I went over with my camera he was mad as a hornet….the armadillo had gotten into his compost pit and eaten all his fishing worms and he had turned it loose.  I didn’t get that picture.  But I did get one of Dad after he caught one just like I explained.

Dad and armadillo

Dad caught this armadillo just by walking up to it and picking it up by the tail.

Waldo Tompkins was about the most country person I ever met.  He was fully knowledgeable about Florida and its wildlife.  We were out in a swampy area one day when he spotted a baby gator on a lilly pad.  The pads were so dense and the marsh grasses so full that one could not tell where water started and land ended.  He said he was going to catch the gator.  I had seen pay shows of gator handling for tourists but I had not experienced this.  He rolled up his pant legs and I thought he would slowly work up close like I might with a big bullfrog and Snatch the gator.  Instead he dove flat out and came up with the baby gator in his hand.  I was sure he was insane.  He had no idea what was under all that flora.  There could have been glass, metal, wires, snakes, the MOTHER, but he dove flat out and came up unscathed.  Now, there are small 5-6 inch Anoles in Florida…small lizards that the kids play with and will get the lizard upset and then hold it next to their earlobe.  The lizard will bite anything it can and it’s bite is quite small so the kids will run around showing off their lizard ear rings.  Waldo called me over to see this baby gator of about 14 inches.  He reminded me of the Anoles and told me to let the gator bite me on the heel of my hand so that I could understand what a gator was like.  Ok.  DANG…I swear its teeth touched in the middle and any move I made no matter how minor, it sensed it and tightened it’s grip.  Then Waldo said, “Remember this, and know that the adults are the same way”!  It was at least 15 minutes before I got my hand free.

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