By Lee Foster
Mesmerized by an anhinga bird spearing small fish with its beak, I let my kayak drift down the headwaters of the Hillsborough River, near Tampa.
Gar fish lounged in the clear springs that formed the river. Turtles dozed on logs as I passed. Great blue herons lifted off majestically before me.
While kayaking, I pondered the popular notion that Florida is all man-made theme parks, urban congestion, and development out of control.
Maybe it wasn’t so, after all.
On this trip, my personal quest was to find natural Florida preserved. I decided to begin in Tampa, searching for what satisfying eco-encounters I could find close to an urban area. Using Tampa as my fly-in gateway, I planned to start my nature activities with a tour of the Florida Aquarium, and then kayak two special environments, the Hillsborough River and the Gulf barrier islands near the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
After Tampa, I planned to drive 1-1/2 hours north to Citrus County, which I understood was one of the best-preserved areas in the state. With its enormous oak trees and wilderness waterways, Citrus County resembles what most of Florida must have been like 100 years ago. Even more impressive are the steps being taken to protect these natural resources in the County. Nearly half of the county has been designated as public parks and preserves destined to remain untouched.
Citrus boasts a healthy 157-mile wilderness river ecosystem, the Withlacoochee, which forms the eastern and northern boundaries of the county. The state’s largest herd of endangered Florida manatees makes its annual migration to the county’s Homosassa and Crystal rivers. An average adult manatee may be 10 feet long and weigh 1,000 pounds. These large mammals can survive comfortably during the winter months in the natural warm springs that originate here and flow into the Gulf of Mexico. Citrus is a premier region for Florida ecotourism travel of any kind. Watching wildlife, from the huge and gentle “sea cow” manatees to the native and migrating birds, is a major nature-based activity. Hiking, biking, kayaking and canoeing are also popular.
With much anticipation, I started my trip in Tampa, as a prelude to further outdoor adventures in Citrus County.
The Florida Aquarium proved to be an excellent introduction to the state’s water-rich ecosystems. At the Aquarium I followed the life of a Florida river from its first formative bubbles, emerging as springs from the aquifers. Rivers in Florida then make circuitous treks through relatively flat terrain to the ocean. The Aquarium showcases the birds, fish, and reptiles of the state, many occupying its glass-domed aviary. I delighted in a close-up view of a roseate spoonbill bird, whose wide snout allows it to feed in the shallows, shoveling back and forth.
Canoe Escape organizes kayak and canoe trips along pristine sections of the Hillsborough River. Trips range from a few hours to all-day, and transportation to and from the riverbanks is provided. The area is easy to explore alone or with a guide. I started at the springs that are the river’s source. The primitive surroundings provided an agreeable paddle, showing me abundant wildlife. Remarkably, I was only minutes away from crowded highways and congested commercial developments while I watched the anhinga bird spear its dinner.
The Clearwater Marine Aquarium offers another type of kayak experience–a biologist-led trek across open-ocean water to observe a bird rookery. Stopping at a nearby barrier island, everyone in the group came ashore to assist with water-quality tests and to participate in a coastal clean-up, collecting trash while pondering man’s effect on the environment. I saw numerous osprey and pelicans that nest here successfully in increasing numbers, a hopeful sign that these fish-rich waters are relatively healthy. I delighted in dolphins disporting themselves before me. I gathered trash, especially plastic bags that pollute the island beaches and are often mistaken by sea turtles for jellyfish and consumed, with lethal effect.
After these interludes, I headed for Citrus County. A rental car is necessary for this exploration because no public transportation is available. I took a scenic route, driving north and then west across the county, savoring the pine forests and rolling grasslands, as well as the lovely oak-lined streets of the small town of Floral City.
Lodging is available in the town of Homosassa, immediately adjacent to the county’s main eco-attraction, the Homosassa State Wildlife Park. The joyous encounter possible here for any traveler is an up-close look at rehabilitated manatees, who were brought here with severe injuries, usually caused by boat collisions. Fully recovered manatees are returned to the wilds, but if the injuries make survival in the wilds chancy, the mammals are kept here for public education, display, and reproduction if possible. Outside the gated area of the wildlife park I spotted a dozen wild manatees. The calm, warm waters of this protected area attract manatees inland. It is also possible to snorkel with the manatees here on the Homosassa and on the adjacent Crystal River, something I enjoyed on an earlier trip. Organizers of the manatee snorkel trips instruct participants to remain still and not harass the animals.
Stabilizing the wild manatee population at roughly 3,800 animals constitutes a major environmental success story, though the fate of the manatees remains tenuous. If public education of boaters can reduce collisions with manatees, the large, gentle vegetarians should survive.
The next major environmental undertaking of the Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park will be to establish a whooping crane colony. Crane populations have climbed, up from the critically small number of only three reproducing females in the 1940s. Whooping cranes are the largest birds in North America. Schemes to establish this whooping colony are truly incredible and necessary. The plan calls for an ultra-light pilot to fly with a few of the cranes from the Midwest to Florida, leading them on a route that is an alternative to their Texas wintering grounds. The merit of the plan is that the greater number of habitats the cranes have, the less likely they are to be wiped out by a catastrophe. Imprinting the flight route on the cranes is critical.
A stroll through the wildlife park acquainted me with many other Florida species, from alligators to deer. An underwater viewing area put me face-to-face with the many species of fish, such as jack caravelle, that inhabit the Homosassa River along with the manatees.
For a traveler, the wonderful reality of the Homosassa State Wildlife Park is that manatees can be seen year round. Wild manatees spend the warm summer in the shallow gulf coastal waters and enter the rivers only in the cooler winter months, when the ocean water turns chilly. The perpetual relative warmth of the springs is necessary for the manatee survival.
If your schedule allows, go on a guided kayak excursion on the Homosassa River. The trip takes travelers to the swamplands down river, where there is no human habitation, and where bird life is abundant. This is also where fly fishermen stalk their prey, such as the redfish, in the shallow salt water flats.
The county’s eastern border features a long, flat bicycle ride along the Withlacoochee State Trail and an airboat excursion down the vast wild area known as the Withlacoochee River.
With a rental from Suncoast Bicycles shop in Inverness, I enjoyed a half-day ride along the tree-lined, linear state park, the Withlacoochee Trail. The path is a rails-to-trails legacy, where the former rail bed has been paved over (with recycled tires) as part of the national conversion of obsolete rail right-of-ways to recreational use. The entire Withlacoochee Trail is 47 miles, 30 miles of which are in Citrus. Bikers, joggers, and skaters can rest and relax at benches and picnic tables scattered along the route. The popular path offers engaging side-trip access to the small towns, such as Inverness and Floral Park, with their historic homes and small-town feeling. Suncoast Bicycles equipped me with maps and plenty of tips about the trail.
Paralleling the Withlacoochee Trail and slightly east is the Withlacoochee River and 22-mile-long Tsala Apopka Lake. Such a river must be seen to be believed if one thinks that Florida has been totally developed. This watery ecosystem remains relatively uncharted.
Though I wished to avoid the noise of an airboat, plus the potential damage to plants and animals as the airboat skims across vegetation, I elected to do an outing with Wild Bill’s Airboat Tours. The airboat allowed me to see a large area of the river in a short time. I immersed myself in this lovely environment, inhabited by mature bald cypress trees, fecund number of alligators, and the full panorama of birds, from egrets to herons, for which Florida is noteworthy. Several rivers in Citrus have the special Florida legal designation of being “Outstanding Rivers,” meaning their natural environment is special and merits a higher level of preservation.
When the time came to leave Citrus County, I vowed to come back, perhaps to canoe or kayak on the Withlacoochee or to snorkel with the manatees again on the Homosassa River. I had only begun my meditation on Florida’s natural legacy in Citrus. Ironically, I learned, much of the county had once been planted in citrus, but a frost in the 1890s killed most of the trees and diminished the will to continue citrus farming, allowing for preservation of the natural environment.
Although Citrus is wild, the accommodations and dining options here are not primitive. I stayed in Homosassa at the Ramada Inn, immediately adjacent to the Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park. I noted a range of other lodgings, from the all-inclusive country club atmosphere of Plantation to the on-the-water feel of the Howard Johnson Riverside Inn Resort. My enjoyable meals included lamb shank and blackened grouper at local restaurants. .
The well-preserved natural environment of Citrus County will pleasantly surprise a visitor. With national news so focused on the destruction of the natural Florida environment, especially the threats to the Everglades at the southern end of Florida, it is encouraging to discover that at least one area–Citrus County–remains a pleasurable ecotourism option. Citrus County is relatively undeveloped, both for the benefit of the local flora and fauna and the delight of the discriminating traveler. This is Florida as it used to be, with Florida’s natural environment as the theme park.
Florida’s Citrus County and Tampa: If You Go
Tampa is the fly-in access point. For further information, contact the Tampa/Hillsborough Convention and Visitors Association, www.visittampabay.com.
The tourism information source for the natural area north of Tampa is Citrus County Tourist Development Council, www.visitcitrus.com.