Hillsborough River:
Trapped in Time

Drew McDougall, Photographer + Storyteller

"It is a place where the relentless march of progress gives way to the timeless rhythms of nature."


In the bustling heart of Florida, where cities burgeon with unprecedented growth, lies a precious secret: the Hillsborough River. Amidst the urban sprawl, this river remains a sanctuary, a bastion of untamed beauty struggling against the encroaching tide of progress.

Pulling up to a river that barely moves with water darker than the black coffee sitting on my dash on a day reaching about 85 degrees with nearly 90% humidity isn’t typically what most think about when envisioning their perfect day in Florida. But to me, it sounds like paradise. Sitting on the outskirts of a bustling city, a profound stillness hangs in the air. The only disruptions come from bass that break the water's surface, the birds that call out to their mates, and the alligators that remind us of our place in the natural order.


For those who venture into its depths, the Hillsborough River offers a glimpse into a world untouched by time. Here, amidst the cypress trees and winding waterways, one can find solace from the chaos of modern life. It is a place where the relentless march of progress gives way to the timeless rhythms of nature.

For every person that sees this place for the first time, the often wonder or feel as though they’ve been missing a piece of the puzzle. For me this was the case as well. Having grown up on the coastal waters of Florida, places like the Hillsborough were off my radar. Eventually, curiosity gave way to adventure and this island oasis became one of my most treasured places. There is simply a different feeling the rivers in Florida provide that its coasts don’t offer. I’m not here to describe that for you, as I feel I’d do it no justice.

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Much like all other natural environments though, I remain concerned for its health. As a native Floridian, I have witnessed firsthand the toll that human activity has taken on our state's now fragile ecosystems. From the destruction of coral reefs to the relentless march of development, the signs of our impact are all too clear.

The Hillsborough River, once revered by the Native Americans who first settled its banks, is no different. Pollution runs rampant, with sewage spills and plastic waste choking the life out of once pristine waters in the lower parts of the river. It’s hard to watch something struggle, unnoticed by those that walk alongside a river that cuts through the middle of one of our nation's fastest growing city.

As a photographer, I have made it my mission to capture the beauty of places like the Hillsborough River to try and make a case for keeping them. Through my lens, I hope to shine a light on the plight of these forgotten ecosystems and inspire others to take action. It is not enough to simply bear witness to the destruction unfolding around us. We must also take action to protect the places we hold dear.

Dr. Jane Goodall once said, "You just need to focus on doing one good thing a day to make the world a better place." It is a sentiment that resonates deeply with me, a reminder that even the smallest act of kindness can make a difference.

Moral of the story, my curiosities of untapped and unknown adventures into the heart of Florida has driven me to create and begin to help fight for our natural land. There is no better convincing than seeing something for yourself, and hopefully photographs and stories like my own will encourage you to do so on your own.

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In the end, it is not just the river itself that we are fighting to save, but the very soul of Florida and the natural world. For in its waters lies a connection to the past, a link to a time when the land was wild and untamed. It is a legacy worth fighting for, and a legacy that must be preserved for future generations to inherit.


Born and raised on the water in Florida, Drew McDougall quickly became infatuated with the ocean, the waterways, and the nature surrounding it. Seeing our wild places disappear, Drew focues on digital storytelling as a means to spread conservation messages and inspire collective action. You can see more of Drew’s work on his Instagram.

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