by Dan Smith
Volusia County occupies a kind of a strange niche as a tourism destination.
Florida as a whole is well known as a winter getaway for refugees from points north and we get our fair share of those.
Each year Canadians, Europeans and visitors from the northern states flock to this county with the strange name in hopes of enjoying a mild winter like the one we just experienced.
Our most famous event is in February when the racing world turns its eye on Daytona International Speedway for the Daytona 500.
Of course, the largest event is Bike Week in March, but no matter what the calendar says, that is not a winter happening.
For the most part Eastern Volusia County is decidedly a summertime destination. Thousands of Americans and people from abroad come here to visit our endless beach. Most of those will tell you they are thrilled just to see the palm trees and the Atlantic Ocean.
Many will privately confess the hope of seeing alligators and sharks. The public holds a childlike fascination for our most famous predators. They want to see them -- just not too closely. They enjoy knowing that gators and sharks are about, but usually that knowledge alone is enough for them.
As a fisherman I am often asked about both. Whenever I am surf fishing and wading couples ask what I usually catch? I always reply: sharks. It amazes me to watch them retreat from the four inches of water they were standing in.
Of course, most of the questions are about the alligators.
These days alligators have become pretty big TV stars. The tourists are invariably surprised to hear of my indifference to the big lizards. They want to know why I am not afraid to be in my little kayak in these gator-infested waters? When I tell them I don't give it much thought, they are amazed.
The tourists don't know that I was raised in the Great Atchafalaya Swamp in Southern Louisiana. There I co-existed with gators for all of my young life. If that name sounds familiar, it is the swamp where all of the alligator hunting takes place on the History Channel's show "Swamp People." I suppose my first encounter was when a young gator swallowed my red and white fishing bobber when I was 10 years old. Pretty good fun for a kid.
Unfortunately the alligator population of Eastern Volusia County is nearly depleted. Last fall when I met Troy Landry of "Swamp People," we spoke of the loss of alligator habitat there and here.
When I first arrived on these shores more than 45 years ago, gators were very common. Every pond had at least one resident alligator and seeing one cross a road was not unusual at all. Sharing space with them while fishing was also common. Now it is rare to see one east of Interstate 95.
A few years ago, there was one living in the spring fed stream on North Beach Street near the Fairchild Oak and a big one could usually be found sunning near Sanchez Park in Ormond Beach. No more.
Now if you want to see gators, you will need to go west to places like Lake Woodruff or the St. Johns River near Osteen. After a baby gator showed up on the beach recently, I took a trip in my kayak looking for alligators near Bulow Creek State Park.
On a high tide, I took my kayak into places no one had been in years and looked for gator sign. No nests, no slides, no wallows--- nothing.
These days, tourists have little reason to worry about me being devoured in my little kayak. Sometime back, a family of pasty white visitors stood on the bank to watch me paddle by. "See any alligators?" they happily asked. "Why yes," I answered. "There was one right there a few minutes ago." Before I had the words out, the family had bolted in every direction as fast as their pale legs could carry them. The father was fastest and left their toddler to fend for himself. Naturally I really enjoyed that scene. On a slow fishing day, you take your fun where you find it.
Dan Smith is on the board of directors for the Ormond Beach Historical Society and The Motor Racing Heritage Association and is the author of two books, "The World's Greatest Beach" and "I Swear the Snook Drowned." Email questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or call (386) 441-7793.