Anything for me?

A fearless snowy egret keeps a close eye on fishermen and their catch at Ponce Inlet. (LISA CARDEN/ORLANDO SENTINEL / June 3, 2001)

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.