Turning the kids’ sports into a family-friendly, outdoors excursion

Sometimes, the most memorable family vacations don’t start out as family vacations. For example, we thought we were going to Ridgeland, Mississippi, for a weekend baseball tournament. What started out in the field and in the stands quickly turned into on wheels and on the water. Here’s how it all went down.

At bat

There’s nothing like scores tied and bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth to put you on the edge of your seats. The cheers got louder and louder. Under the bright stadium lights, all eyes on them, our boys were probably feeling like professionals in the MLB. We’d traveled for baseball tournaments before, but this was our first time playing in Ridgeland.

Unfortunately, we lost out Friday night.

But after analyzing the game, my husband, Steve, brought up the great opportunity in front of us: continued family fun and playtime before we had to go back home.

Having heard about Ridgeland from teammates and their parents who’d been here before, none of us needed any convincing to stay.

That evening we took the boys out for their favorite food: pizza, and Soulshine Pizza Factory at The Township at Colony Park definitely fit the bill. This family-friendly restaurant is a lively local pizza chain that features awesome stone baked pies. The restaurant had live music and was full of families with kids.

On bikes

Relatively early the next morning, we were zipping down the Natchez Trace Parkway, Ridgeland’s paved multi-use path, on two wheels. Captains of their Cannondale rentals and with a tailwind at their backs, Kaden and Kai seemed to have forgotten all about their loss the night before. As we pedaled up a small hill, they wordlessly turned it into a competition—how quickly they can shift gears!

At the hotel, I’d downloaded Ridgeland’s self-guided bike tour map and Steve had made one phone call to Bicycle Revolution—Ridgeland’s mobile bike rental service. A short while later, our bikes arrived and we were off to Old Trace Park.

When we reached the waterfront overlook, Kai and Kaden dismounted for a just a moment before hopping back on their bikes to meander back and forth on wheels. Steve and I sat in the shade of one of the many picnic pavilions at Old Trace Park and took in the views of Barnett Reservoir. We watched boats sail and speed across the vast expanse of water.

In kayaks

For a second, the arc of the fish seemed frozen in time. Then with a splash, it disappeared, sending water rippling in all directions. We held our kayak paddles out of the water for a moment. We weren’t fishing, but it’s always fun to see wildlife.

Thanks to the owner of Pearl River Kayaks—who’d met us at the reservoir with our kayak rentals—we’d paddled to the area’s prime fishing spots. But that’s not to say our eyes were always on the action in the water. Above, we followed a soaring bald eagle back to its nest in a towering tree with 360-degree views of the reservoir and surrounding wetlands. Its wingspan was certainly impressive. Still, I preferred the bluish-gray plumes of the great blue herons pruning themselves nearby. They were the same hue of the boys’ baseball uniforms, and for a second I laughed, thinking about the reason we’d come to Ridgeland. My reverie was broken a few seconds later by the boys’ two favorite words.

“Race ya!”

Behind the helm

“Faster!” I told Steve the next day when I got the thumbs up signal from the boys. He revved our boat rental from Main Harbor Store, cranking up the engine’s volume by several notches, but not enough that we could no longer hear the screams of joy coming from atop the tubes trailing in the boat’s wake.

I’d never before seen a pontoon boat jetting across the water this fast, but this 21-foot-long lounge-machine was built with recreational towing in mind. I’d had to stow my baseball hat at the last round of thumbs ups! Steve circled the boat over our wake. First Kai, then Kaden went airborne, holding tight to their inner tubes and beaming. The tubes bumped and both boys were off. They lived for this. I shot my hand in the air with the flag to signal Steve. By the time the boys climbed back on board, they’d worked out that Kaden let go first, so Dad would take his place.

Kai took the spotter’s seat and I took the helm. My strategy was to ease them into a wild ride, steadily increasing speed and turns. Half a dozen times, Kai turned to me and said, “Thumbs up.” The final thumbs up of this round was on a straightaway. We were booking it. I knew I had to be attentive to turns to avoid losing our tow too soon. I gently tugged the helm.

“Ready for a physics lesson?” I hollered to Kai.

“Huh?” He replied.

Once Steve and Kaden were over the outside of the wake, I brought us into a tighter circle.

“Woah!” Kai said through approving laughter.

“Centrifugal Force 101,” I explained.

In the mirror, I saw both Steve and Kaden flexing with all their might to stay connected to their tubes as they whipped across the glassy surface of the water in an arc.

Half a second later, the flag whipped through the air in an arc across my peripheral view.

“Dad splashed,” Kai said. “Kaden’s still on.”

Once reunited on the boat, discussion buzzed with adrenaline.

“I am the champion!” Kaden declared.

“I think Mom won that round,” Steve said.

“OK, Mom gets this one,” Kaden conceded.

I’m way too cool to say something so cliché as “we all won.” OK, no I’m not. We were all winners.

Beyond a doubt

Later that evening, we stepped onto another pontoon boat. This one was the traditional social design—a floating party room, with wraparound windows so we could enjoy the scenery.

“Welcome to The Sweet Olive’s sunset cruise,” said Captain Jason. It only seemed fitting that after spending the day on the reservoir, we’d end it there. As we sailed toward the setting sun, Kaden and Kai rehashed the afternoon with vivid replays and commentary.

The hour and a half passed quickly on the cruise. We noshed on snacks and rehydrated. Our energy levels seemed to take their cue from the sun. From the high-octane thrills to the kickback sunset scene, our day felt complete. And from the pop flies on the baseball diamond to the sparkle of the evening lights on the water’s ripples, the whole trip felt like a win. Maybe next year we’ll bring a trophy home, too.

Find even more family fun in Ridgeland.

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