Finding more in Florida

Marshall woman and her family do more than have fun in the sun in Florida — they try to give back every chance they get and learn about the natural environment

Submitted photo Clockwise from left: Daniel Stevens, Erin Stevens, Brenden Archbold, Sawyer Stevens, Kandy Noles Stevens, Sydney Schake and Cloie Stevens joined David and Sheran Noles, center front, for an adventurous kayaking trip recently through Sarasota Bay in Florida.

Kandy Noles Stevens has been a Minnesota resident since 1994, but part of her heart will always favor Florida. It’s where she and her husband Daniel have attempted to instill many life lessons and a love for the Florida environment in their children — Sawyer, Erin and Cloie.

“I consider Marshall my home, but my real home is Florida,” Stevens said. “I will always consider myself a native Floridian.”

The Stevens family recently returned from an impactful, multi-generational trip to the Sunshine State.

“I’m originally from Pensacola, Florida, but we were visiting Anna Maria Island, which is a barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico,” Kandy Noles Stevens said. “My parents (David and Sheran Noles) came down and they stayed with us as well. We had a great time.”

Stevens said the Gulf of Mexico is a big part of her family’s story, so she feels strongly about teaching her kids where their family comes from.

“It’s important just to know that our family’s heritage has a connection to the sea,” she said. “So this year’s eco adventure was one of the coolest ones we’ve done.”

While the trip was technically a vacation, the family’s effort and experience was much more than that. Along with snorkeling, they immersed themselves in other Florida culture.

“When the kids were little, we did more just visiting family,” Stevens said. “Now that they’re older, they give back. It’s not just a place to go on vacation. This is my home state and my children don’t live in that culture, so we always make it about learning about that culture. The kids really look forward to it.”

A three-hour kayak trip through Sarasota Bay proved to be one of the highlights of the trip.

“It was one of the coolest things I’ve done,” Stevens said. “I grew up in Florida, but I have never, never, never seen a sea urchin in the wild. But on this kayak experience, we did. We held the sea urchin in our hands, and of course, safely returned it back. I’m a science teacher, so my children know it goes back. It’s OK to take shells, but not living things.”

Two family friends — Sydney Schake and Brenden Archbold — accompanied them on the trip, and they were able to get out and explore in the Sarasota Bay area.

“We saw hermit crabs in the wild,” Kandy Noles Stevens said. “There were also regular blue crabs there, swimming right along next to us. We were also alongside dolphins — natural dolphins, not some artificial environment at Sea World or something. It was the real deal.”

The group also visited a rookery there.

“A rookery is an area that is mostly inhabited by wildlife and is used as a breeding sanctuary,” Stevens said. “There’s nothing manmade. The entire island is covered in nature — in this case, it was mostly birds. So this rookery was full of birds and babies. It was very cool just listening to all the birds sing.”

Stevens is well informed about ecosystems as she has taught science for many years. This fall, she will be starting her 25th year of teaching.

“I used to teach at Lakeview (where both Sawyer and Erin Stevens graduated from) and I taught at E.C.H.O. Charter,” she said. “Now, I teach teachers to be science teachers (as an adjunct professor at Southwest Minnesota State University). I’m just finishing up my doctorate.”

As a science advocate, Stevens encourages her own children to learn about the world.

“There’s a lot of things in Florida that people do, including Disney World — not that they are bad, but I want my kids to learn about the natural world,” she said. “I also want them to experience those relationships. If you don’t experience it, then you don’t value it.”

Stevens said that though it may seem like people in Minnesota wouldn’t necessarily have anything to do with the Gulf, there are decisions that are made that do impact things in Florida.

“People might think our decisions don’t have anything to do with the Gulf, but decisions we make here do impact all these beautiful things we saw,” Stevens said. “So there’s a lot of things that we could do. But we chose to invest in the ecosystem — learning about it, spending time exploring it, being respectful in it — realizing that it is somebody’s home.”

In the last three years, the Stevens children have learned a great deal about sea turtles.

“Sea turtle rescue is a big part of my life,” Stevens said. “We don’t have lights on our home there because during turtle nesting season, it disorients the baby turtles — they follow the moon to the sea, so if you have a big street light on, they will get disoriented and go that way. It makes them susceptible to predation — rather than getting to the ocean, where they have a better chance of surviving.”

Stevens said her Florida past has now become intermingled with her children’s lives.

“Whenever we go back to Florida, the kids don’t just go to the beach,” she said. “They pick up trash. When people make big holes, my kids go back and fill the holes in because mama sea turtles can get trapped in them. My kids are giving back to nature.”

Stevens said she’s confident that her children have gained valuable insight throughout their time in Florida. Seventh-grader Cloie proved that on the first day of vacation.

“In the evening the very first day we got there, we were walking on the beach,” Stevens said. “She stopped and started filling in the holes. I said, ‘Cloie, what are you doing?’ She said, ‘Saving the sea turtles.’ It had been two years since we’d been there, but the lesson was not lost on her.”

While in Florida, the Stevens family also made a point of visiting Silver Springs State Park.

“The park boasts crystal clear water — 95 percent — where we could see to depths of 80 to 90 feet,” Kandy Noles Stevens said. “We wanted our kids to explore a state park environment to see how native Florida once was.”

Wildlife reported to be within the park’s border include American alligators, armadillos, foxes, gopher tortoises, rhesus macaques, turkeys, wild boars and white-tailed deer.

“We saw a large gator — those guys can give your heart palpitations for sure,” Stevens said. “We gave him a large berth. There were also rhesus monkeys roaming free at the park. Those are the ones that recently made news for attacking some tourists. We only saw them from a distance.”

The area where the Stevens family vacationed also has a big manatee population, so they were able to observe them in the wild.

“The manatees live in brackish water — where the salt water and fresh water mix,” Stevens said. “My kids have learned about the manatee culture and how those are an endangered species. They know about safe boating — many manatees are injured by boats because people drive too fast (in the no-wake zone).”

A manatee family basically lives in the backyard of the Stevens’ Florida home.

“That isn’t the typical Minnesota kid experience,” Stevens said. “At any given moment, you can look on the back dock and see one of the kids watching the manatees. They’re so beautiful and it’s neat to see how they interact.”

Stevens said a baby manatee got “pretty daring” and ended up somewhere it shouldn’t have.

“It was a particularly hot day and a neighbor had a hose and was watering the grass,” she said. “It was missing and hitting the water. The baby manatee wedged itself up there and was getting a tummy splash. It put the manatee in harm’s way because people could have touched him. To watch that socialization of the mama manatee scolding the baby and bringing him back was a gem of a thing to see.”

Stevens added that it’s something people wouldn’t see at a zoo.

“We’ve seen manatees, but not that whole socialization and teaching aspect,” Stevens said. “It was really neat.”

Stevens said deep water awareness is another aspect her children have learned after being submerged in the Florida atmosphere.

“It’s about being able to understand what the tides are doing and to understand the rip current,” she said. “While we were down there, Erin, who is a lifeguard, saved people on the beach. They didn’t realize they were getting into water that they shouldn’t. If you’re not a strong swimmer, you shouldn’t be out too far — past your waist, really.”

Unfortunately, not far away from where the family was staying, a man drowned.

“It’s very different than Minnesota lakes, even safety things like the ‘sting ray shuffle,'” Stevens said. “You need to have that deep water awareness. You have to be careful how you walk in the ocean. You should shuffle your feet so it gives the sting rays a chance to get out of the way. If you step on them, they will hit you with the barb.”

Stevens acknowledges that people are invaders and feels that everyone should be respectful of the inhabited spaces.

“You’re in their home,” she said. “We have to be respectful of that.”

In addition to being a barrier island, Anna Maria Island is also known for its beautiful white-sand beaches.

“It’s this tiny little island that at its widest, it’s about five blocks and it is only 7 miles long,” Stevens said. “It’s really not very big.”

While on the island, the group checked out a native habitat preservation.

“There is a natural park there that they have conserved,” Stevens said. “They’ve kept it natural rather than develop it. That’s a big thing in Florida — everybody wants to develop. But this area has native grasses and an estuary area. That was one of our favorites.”

Stevens said there were “millions upon millions” of fiddler crabs there.

“The fiddler crabs have one gigantic claw and all the other appendages are of normal size,” she said. “It is a terrestrial experience that my kids wouldn’t experience here. So we really want to expose them to something like this.”

The fiddler crabs aren’t very people friendly, but Stevens said that if you be still and quiet, they will come out.

“They’re really cool,” Stevens said. “They really aren’t a big fan of humans. So they try to burrow and stay away. We also get to see birds there that we don’t typically get to see, like shore birds, ospreys and herons that you can reach out and touch. The residents of the island know they have to preserve it or future generations will never see them.”