Sunday, February 11, 2007

Down a River with a Paddle

If you were along the river in Tampa Friday afternoon, you may have seen an odd thing: a small regatta of canoes. Tom Hallock, who teaches at University of South Florida-St. Petersburg, took his Nature Writing class outdoors for the afternoon. Earlier in the week, they paddled a portion of the upper Hillsborough River, and today they would compare that with the lower or urban Hillsborough River. I was fortunate enough to be invited along.

As we paddled, I compared this trip to my last venture down the urban Hillsborough in a canoe, two and half years ago. There have been some changes, but subtle rather than sweeping. The houses that were being built on the river then, as the real estate bubble was inflating, are now finished. But now signs point to a difficult market. Literally signs, as the riverbanks are peppered with realtors’ for sale signs: price reduced.

Still, this time there were more people on the river, by the river, interacting with the river. Fishermen in motor boats, families enjoying a warm sunny day, a man sitting on his dock with a cold one after a long day of work. Dogs sniffing trees, as their owners chatted on cell phones. A couple embracing, watching the river slowly drift along. We round a bend, and encounter a group of young otters—well, actually several teenage boys challenging us to a race. They scramble to untie their worthy craft, which turns out to be a raft they made this morning, enjoying a day out of the classroom. It’s State Fair Day in Hillsborough County, no school today, but these kids made their own ride out of an old door and what looks like Styrofoam and bubble wrap. Their paddle is an old wooden porch balustrade.

The Hillsborough River is hidden in Tampa. Waterfront parks and access points are largely unmarked. For those of us familiar with the straight north/south grid of streets, the river’s bends are disorienting and confusing – what bridge is that? What neighborhood is this? As a driver, you might catch a glimpse of the river, but it’s rather small and there’s no large floodplain to announce its presence. You’re driving along, and all the sudden you’re on a bridge, but there’s a lot of traffic, so you better watch the road. We float under I-275, already bumper to bumper.

At this point the river is busy, too, as university crew teams skim their oars over the dark water. The bridges and seawalls are brightly colored with messages left by teams visiting from up north, where the frozen water keeps them from rowing. In our canoes, we pause under the Fortune Street Bridge, peering into its guts and gears.

The students are given a writing assignment; their teacher laughs and tells them, After that trip, you can’t say you don’t have anything to write about!

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