Those who enjoy spending their outdoor leisure time paddling the waterways in several regional parks now have access using county canoes or kayaks.
Hillsborough County has opened the water window for more people by offering canoes and kayaks at Alderman's Ford and Lithia Springs parks in the Lithia area, at Medard Park south of Plant City and at E.G. Simmons Park in Ruskin.
Rentals are available on a first-come, first-served basis for $25, which gives renters four hours of paddling time. There is also a $2 park entry fee. If the boats are taken outside park boundaries, it will be up to the renters to return them, said Jeff Mauch, general manager for the county's regional parks.
Because private vendors offer trips on the Alafia and Hillsborough rivers that include pick-up, the county is attempting to avoid competing with them by instead offering in-park rentals, Mauch said.
"At Alderman's Ford, it's such a large area, we were able to use an existing old roadway and take the canoes and people to an area upstream where they can canoe back," Mauch said. "It's just over an hour and you never leave the park."
The Alafia, which Mauch calls "a quintessential black-water river," with tannic-stained waters, offers scenic paddles with oak trees draping across the river, anhingas perching on low limbs and the occasional alligator sunning along the banks.
At Medard Reservoir — an 8,000-acre man-made lake off Turkey Creek Road with miles of shorelines — paddlers can fish for bass, bream, crappy and bluegill. The reservoir, which had been drained for repairs, has refilled with rainwater and was reopened for catch-and-keep fishing Jan. 1.
"We are already hearing, by word of mouth, that fishing is fantastic," Mauch said.
There are alligators in the reservoir and lots of bird life. Expect to see ospreys, great blue herons, cattle egret, little blue herons and many others.
At E.G. Simmons in Ruskin, paddlers can wander along a multitude of mangrove-lined canals, and with a saltwater fishing license, anglers can net mullet or fish for snook, trout, whiting or redfish. Birders may observe bald eagles, osprey, roseate spoonbills or the occasional reddish egret, Mauch said.
For information, call Hillsborough County Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department at (813) 757-3801.