I am standing on the bank of Mosquito Lagoon, contemplating fragments of clam shells strewn along the shoreline at the foot of the historic Eldora State House's front veranda.
"Looks like a school of fish coming in," someone close by says, pointing out to the lagoon.
Glancing up, I squint over the dark water and see a large V-shaped ripple. Just as I am wondering how a school of fish could cause such a phenomenon, a slick gray back encrusted with thorny-looking barnacles breaks the surface.
"Is it an alligator?" a woman fishing from a dock about 100 yards away asks a companion, her echoing query hanging over the water.
As if to answer, a bulbous snout breaks the surface. Then I see a pair of tiny, gentle eyes. The animal's nostrils flare open as air is gulped, then snap shut like small, rubbery trap doors. But before the manatee submerges, it pauses for several heartbeats. It is as if it is regarding me with the same sort of amazement with which I am beholding it.
This sighting, I know, is truly rare. Manatees are easy to see in the clear waters of inland springs, in which they winter. But they are much harder to sight in the dark, brackish coastal waters they prefer at other times of the year. Glimpsing the creature is serendipitous, a gift that caps my trip with a final, natural high.
Eldora, or what's left of the historic settlement south of Bethune Beach, is the last stop of a two-day journey I am making from south of Flagler Beach to the Canaveral National Seashore. My quest has been simple enough: to find places in which I can savor the history and naturalness of this 40-mile stretch of Florida's east coast, which, in a large way, has been plowed under by development and has become populated more heavily by snowbirds than shorebirds.
As I have traveled south into Volusia County from neighboring Flagler, I have been pleasantly surprised by my findings: two lovely forested parks on inland-coastal waterways; several stretches of Atlantic shoreline devoid of dune-scarring development; and the national seashore itself, an uplifting tribute to the effectiveness of man's protection of his natural assets.
I start my quest at Bulow Plantation Ruins Historic State Park, which my Florida Atlas & Gazetteer reveals as only a smudge of a state holding near the coast in south Flagler County. I'm not sure what I'll find there as I turn my car down a narrow, washboard dirt road, but I am immediately charmed. Oak trees tower overhead, their gnarled limbs entwined like laced fingers.
The road opens to a good-size clearing on the banks of Bulow Creek -- if this tide-swollen waterway could qualify as a mere creek. On this weekday I have the park to myself. A ranger, who is trying to repair the door on a screened picnic area, says he sighted two manatee just feet from the bank out back about half an hour earlier. I go to the spot and linger for a bit, hoping to see the sea cows. Instead, my gaze is drawn to the sky where an osprey circles, a fish in its talons. Somewhere in a nearby treetop, lunch is about to be served.
I weave among oaks, pines and sabal palms, following a short trail that leads to the ruins of a sugar mill. The woods are alive around me. An occasional butterfly flits among the trees, and birds set twittering, cawing conversations loose on the pine-scented air. A park brochure tells me that John James Audubon visited this area in 1831, and I pause to wonder if the artist was as impressed as I am with the ease of this wilderness.
The ruins of the mill rise unexpectedly from the forest floor, like some crumbling fairytale dwelling. Several towering facades remain to hint at the size of the building, once an impressive factory. Signs within the ruins lead visitors through the process of milling the sugar and the draining off its byproduct, molasses, used in the production of rum. As I read, I imagine wagons being loaded within the mill's stone-arched bays, to be drawn away by heavily haunched horses.
Nearby, in a pavilion, artifacts and storyboards tell of the Bulow Plantation, which began shortly after Maj. Charles Bulow acquired 4,675 acres, clearing 2,200 acres with slave labor in order to grow sugar cane, cotton, rice and indigo.
NATURE RULES AGAIN
From Bulow Plantation, I travel south on Old Dixie Highway, which winds through shaded oak hammocks and along bayous picturesquely framed by cabbage palms and sweet gums. From a short bridge that spans the Tomoka River, anglers with cane poles await nibbles at their hooks.
Tomoka State Park sits on a slender peninsula that juts into the Tomoka Basin at the juncture of the Tomoka and Halifax rivers. It is here that a group of Timucua Indians made their home for hundreds of years before Spanish explorers "discovered" the area.
A short trail leads to the site of Nocoroco, where the Timucuans went about their daily tasks under the limbs of ancient oaks. Portions of what must have been large shell middens -- trash heaps -- are all that remain of the civilization. Near the trailhead is a small museum that tells something of the area's history, much of which was acquired by Richard Oswald in 1763 after what was to become Florida transferred from Spanish to British rule. Oswald, a statesman and merchant, destroyed thousands of acres of forest so that indigo, rice and sugar cane could be planted. Nature rules the land for the most part now. Cleared fields have long since disappeared, and indigenous plant and animal life once again have taken their rightful places. The Timucuans, unfortunately, walk only as ghosts.
As clouds threaten overhead, I take refuge in the museum. Inside its lobby, I am greeted by the chiseled figure of Ocalis, a Timucuan chief. The angular, arrogant giant towers above me, clutching a huge lifeless blue bird in his fist. Nearby, behind glass, is the "Fragile Little Cactus Girl," who manages to look demure despite the rigid orbs of her exposed breasts. Both sculptures are the works of Fred Dana Marsh, who built a home in Ormond Beach in the late 1920s and sought to integrate the area's history and culture into his work.
The museum holds other works by Marsh, including murals and paintings, many of which have socio-historical themes. Also found here are shards of Timucuan pottery and displays on the area's history.
DUNES DOING FINE
I head back north on Old Dixie Highway, then turn east toward the coast, searching for an undeveloped snippet of beach briefly mentioned in a guidebook. Thankfully, I have called for directions; there is only one access point for the 900-acre North Peninsula State Recreation Area, about 10 miles north of Ormond Beach. I take High Bridge Road to its intersection with Atlantic-hugging State Road A1A. Before me is a sandy pullout that hardly looks like it could provide access, but I see rutted trails worn into the dunes by foot traffic.
Leaving the whoosh of traffic behind on the busy road, I walk down the dune, weaving through sea oats bent double by the wind. These are regarded as some of the healthiest dunes in Volusia County, according to Florida Beaches (Foghorn Press, $19.95). This stretch of red coquina-sand coastline is vital turf for sea turtles, including the endangered loggerhead, which each May begin trundling out of the surf to dig nests and deposit their eggs.
I walk a stretch of the beach, wind buffeting my ears, enjoying a view devoid of condos and palatial beach homes. The sand is loose beneath my feet, not finely packed like that of Daytona and New Smyrna beaches to the south. The pounding surf has brought a bounty of shells ashore: iridescent angel wings, tiny coquina clams, calico scallops and fragments of lightning whelks. In my palm, I turn over the shell of a tiny crab, all that remains of its spindly legged inhabitant, which may have fallen victim to a gull like the ones circling high above me.
PONCE INLET BEACON
S.R. A1A takes me south through coastal canyons of development. By the time I reach Daytona Beach, there are just quick glimpses of the ocean to be had -- my view of it is largely blocked by high-rises. Only signs pointing out beach access attest to the water's presence, there beyond asphalt and cement.
I press on, feeling more at ease when I reach the pleasant neighborhoods of Wilbur-by-the-Sea, finally reaching Ponce Inlet on the southernmost tip of the barrier island. I stop to explore the grounds of the Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse, one of the tallest such structures in the United States. The historic beacon rises fiery-red from a compound of buildings that once housed its keepers and their tools. Today they hold exhibits on the history of the lighthouse and the sea around it. On the porch of the principal keeper's house, I study a fragile-looking craft made by Cuban refugees from scraps of wood. It doesn't look seaworthy enough to cross Lake Apopka, let alone the pitching waters of the Florida Straits.
Inside I find an intriguing display on the wreck of the Commodore, which sank on its way to Cuba about 10 miles offshore in the late 1800s. The wreckage of the ship was discovered in 1966 by diver Don Serbousek of Holly Hill. Writer Stephen Crane, who penned The Red Badge of Courage, was a passenger aboard the ship. His harrowing short story, "The Open Boat," was based on his experience of pitching upon the sea in a small boat after the shipwreck, guided to land by only the Ponce lighthouse's beacon.
Leaving the lighthouse, I follow what's left of S.R. A1A to Lighthouse Point Park and Recreation Area. There, a long boardwalk weaves between pristine dunes and down to a pier built on a rocky jetty. Waves break bigger than most places on Florida's east coast, and a dozen surfers are in the water, trying to catch a ride. I watch from a bench on the pier as they paddle out several hundred yards to wait, feet dangling in the water, for that perfect white-crested break that will propel them to shore.
Near me, a father and daughter are fishing from the other side of the jetty, away from the pounding surf and spray. A snowy egret stands behind them, amazingly near, perhaps hoping that its patience will be rewarded with a salty treat pulled from the water on the duo's hooks. Two feral cats climb the rocks of the jetty toward shore as the sun sinks lower in the sky, their day of begging for tidbits done.
I dedicate the next morning to exploring the north district of the Canaveral National Seashore, south of Bethune Beach and the final stop of my brief trip. It's not the best day to be outdoors -- dark clouds scuttle in from the southeast, riding winds that plaster my rain poncho to my skin.
At the visitors center, I meet ranger Stanley Schwartz, who is having a slow morning so far. Still, he talks animatedly of the park, its virtues and history as another visitor and I peruse racks of brochures and displays on everything from the nearby Eldora settlement to nesting sea turtles.
Schwartz invites us into a small, darkened auditorium, where we watch a short videotape on the national seashore. The park -- a haven for such endangered species as the loggerhead sea turtle, West Indian manatee, Southern bald eagle and Florida scrub jay -- includes more than 20 miles of pristine coastline as well as much of Mosquito Lagoon, a vast, brackish body of water between the barrier island and mainland.
This is prime real estate. The park's beaches, which offer only primitive facilities, draw many thousands of visitors a year. So popular are they that on much brighter days than this, one must come early in order to be assured one of the limited parking spaces near the few boardwalks that span the dunes of Apollo and Playalinda beaches.
But there is no threat of crowds today. The surf is pounding the shoreline with a vengeance, and all but the hardiest of beachcombers retreat from its wrath. I watch the sea for a few fleeting moments before fleeing inland to Turtle Mound, a 35-foot-high shell midden left behind by Timucuans who once lived next to the lagoon.
I trod up the boardwalk, slippery with rain, to the top of the mound where I can view both the lagoon and the thrashing waves of the Atlantic. I linger a bit, thinking of the Timucuans, wondering if they ever stood where I do now, gazing over their domain, watching for a moment longer as a trio of pelicans soars overhead, long beaks thrust with determination into the wind.
As I start back down the boardwalk into the lush, rain-soaked growth that now covers the midden, I am greeted by one of its residents. He wears a black mask over his eyes, and at first I am not sure of his intentions. As I slow my pace in uncertainty and start backpedaling, the raccoon, which clings to the boardwalk's handrail with long dark toes, keeps coming, picking up speed.
I look for the tell-tale signs of rabies, but all I see is a healthy scamp looking for a handout. I aim my camera, hoping its flash will startle him into the woods, but he remains unperturbed. Finally, though, he must figure that no tidbit will be forthcoming from this wind-flustered, wild-haired visitor, and he saunters self-assuredly into the undergrowth.
About half an hour later, I reflect on my encounter with the raccoon as I watch the manatee surface again at Eldora in Mosquito Lagoon, and my heart lightens with the knowledge that I will carry home memories of the coast's natural highs rather than its manmade high-rises.