“You sure you’re OK with taking care of them for a few days?” my sister, Annie, asked.
Her two kids, my husband, and I stood outside our home in Lake Charles, Louisiana, waving goodbye. Annie and her husband were off for a second honeymoon, and they asked if my husband, Robert, and I could take care of her preteen son and daughter, James and Elle, while they were on an island getaway.
I had tried not to squeal with delight. Robert and I live a three-hour drive from Annie and her family—close enough to make it to the big moments, but not close enough to know the minute details of James and Elle’s lives.
What sort of friends did they hang out with? Was Elle going to try out for her middle school’s volleyball team? I’d catch myself wondering.
“We’ll have just as much fun as you!” I said before my sister’s car backed out the driveway. I had big plans for my niece and nephew this weekend and hoped I’d learn about the little moments of their lives in the process.
Breaking down barriers and ready to explore
James and Elle were quiet as we began settling in for a long weekend together—to be expected of kids their age, staying with an aunt and uncle they see only a few times a year. Luckily, I knew just the thing to instantly perk up the mood and get them talking.
“You guys ever been paddleboarding?” I asked. Instantly, James and Elle’s eyes lit up.
“I’ll grab my suit!” Elle said.
The four of us headed out to meet Shawn Garry, owner of Paddle Up Boarding Co., and our guide for the day. On the way to Prien Lake Park, we drove through downtown Lake Charles, pointing out some of our favorite shops and restaurants to James and Elle.
The city is an eclectic mix that honors the past and creates a cultural future. Many of the businesses downtown have interiors with exposed brick walls and stamped tile ceilings; exteriors of brightly colored murals and flashing neon signs.
Seemingly every weekend brings a quirky festival, including a tame version of Mardi Gras and—perhaps most famous—the Louisiana Pirate Festival.
James cracked up when Robert and I told him about the annual event. “Like, peg legs and eye patches?” he asked.
“And parrots and planks, oh my!” I responded.
Yes. These were the kinds of conversations and jokes that I was hoping for.
We knew we had arrived at the right place when we spotted the rainbow of paddleboards atop the Paddle Up mobile!
Shawn greeted our group with a huge smile and a quick size-up—we each got measured to our paddleboards and were given life jackets. Then, he briefed us on the essentials of stand-up paddleboarding.
“It’s all in your core,” he said. “And don’t overthink it! It’s as easy as it looks, once you get the hang of it.”
We started out slow—kneeling on our boards and getting acquainted with the stroke of the paddle and balancing, and then combining it all together. Elle was the quickest to pop up—“It’s because she’s the shortest,” James insisted—but eventually, we all stood up without a problem. Shawn led our crew through bayou byways, passing colorful homes and businesses beneath Spanish moss-covered trees.
“Having fun?” I asked James and Elle.
“This is a blast!” Elle replied. “Good practice for becoming a flier on the cheer team.”
OK—so cheer, not volleyball, I thought to myself. Noted.
We made our way out into the glassy open water of Prien Lake, paddling with a backdrop of Prien Lake Bridge. Kayakers joined us, all shouting hellos and how’s-it-goings. It was a funny little community on the water—lots of people we passed recognized Shawn, who shared that James and Elle weren’t local to the area.
“Have you taken them to Pops and Rockets yet?” asked a kayaker we met out on the lake.
Walking into Pops and Rockets was like walking into an explosion of color and nostalgia. This gourmet popsicle shop is inspired by the 80s.
Graphic walls in magenta and blue reminded me of David Bowie’s face paint on the cover of Aladdin Sane. Another wall with a mural of cassette tapes (Modern English, The Clash, etc.) took Robert and me down memory lane.
“I played ‘I Melt With You’ in my high school band,” Robert reminisced. “Nothing more important than the guitar in that song, in my opinion.”
“That’s what I want to learn to play!” James said. Robert and James talked about lessons as we perused the puntastic menu of popsicles, including the Sweet Child O Lime (key lime pie) and Choc Blobster (chocolate and peanut butter).
Poking around a bit more, we learned that the pops are concocted in the Pop Lab using milk from a local dairy and fruit from the farmers market. We also discovered the “buy a friend a pop” program, which allows you to purchase a popsicle for someone in advance by writing their name on a paper neon cassette.
“Let’s get one for Mom and Dad!” Elle said. We did, as a motivator to bring their family back. In the car on the way home, James requested we play Modern English.
From paddleboarding to hiking
Feeling the urge to get outdoors again, we headed over to Sam Houston Jones State Park.
There, we hiked part of the Sam Houston Jones State Park Trail, a 7.6-mile loop through marshland. Together, we trekked beside the Calcasieu West Fork River, beneath towering pine trees and across muddy-at-times trails.
Somewhere around mile three, I realized that for the first time in a while, the four of us had grown quiet as we roamed through the trees. It was a funny moment, considering how much I’d wanted to spend the entire weekend talking to Elle and James about their lives. It was a peaceful moment.
I suppose the sights surrounding us, and the captivating glances we’d get of woodpeckers, ducks and herons, brought us something I hadn’t expected: total contentment at hanging out together, even in silence.
Back on the water
On our final day, we hit the water again—this time, boarding our rented 18-foot pontoon boat from Lake Area Adventures, nicknamed “The Bass Buggy.”
Robert navigated The Bass Buggy along the Calcasieu River while James and I talked about his plans for summer vacation.
We slowly drifted through the water, following the map of the bayou provided by Lake Area Adventures and attempting to catch largemouth bass. Elle and James each succeeded in reeling one in.
It was one of many “big moments” the kids bombarded their mom and dad with when they came by our house to pick up James and Elle after their weekend away.
“Sounds like you had a great time together,” Annie said. “We’ll need to come back as a family sometime to experience it, as well!”
What Annie didn’t know was that a visit to Lake Charles was guaranteed. Elle and James had promised a return trip with popsicles at Pops and Rockets. “Maybe during the Louisiana Pirate Festival?” James suggested.