Award-winning journalist Ben Goldfarb shares some of the unexpected adventures that shaped his new feature story in National Parks magazine — and how he built his career traveling to exciting places and writing about them.
Ben Goldfarb was looking forward to a sunny kayaking trip at Padre Island National Seashore in Texas, but unseasonable weather blew his plans apart, and he found himself instead falling face-first into the frigid waters of the Laguna Madre.
In this episode, the award-winning conservation writer speaks with host Jennifer Errick on his new feature in National Parks magazine — the trip he planned to have, the adventure he and his wife actually enjoyed, and how he wove elements of history, nature, wildlife and climate-driven conflict together into a lighthearted, informative story about the austere delights and disappointments of world’s largest undeveloped barrier island. He also shares how he built his career traveling to exciting places and writing about them, and the fascination with a particular rodent that led to his first book.
This episode was produced by Jennifer Errick with help from Todd Christopher, Bev Stanton, Rona Marech, Linda Coutant and Vanessa Pius.
Original theme music by Chad Fischer.
Learn more about this podcast and listen to the rest of our stories at thesecretlivesofparks.org.
Read Ben Goldfarb’s story about Padre Island, “Into the Wind,” in the Spring 2023 issue of National Parks Magazine at npca.org/intothewind. Read his Summer 2002 story, “Troubled Waters,” at npca.org/troubledwaters.
National Parks magazine is a beautiful award-winning quarterly publication and an exclusive benefit of membership in the National Parks Conservation Association. Start your subscription at npca.org/subscribe.
The Secret Lives of Parks is a production of the National Parks Conservation Association. With more than 1.6 million members and supporters, NPCA is the nation’s only independent, nonpartisan advocacy organization dedicated to protecting national parks.
Learn more and join us at npca.org.
Behind the Scenes at Padre Island
Jennifer Errick: Ben Goldfarb was looking forward to a perfect kayaking trip at Padre Island National Seashore in Texas. Then, unseasonable weather blew his plans apart and he found himself falling face-first into the frigid waters of the Laguna Madre.
Today I share some of my conversation with this award-winning journalist about his new feature story in National Parks Magazine and how he built his career traveling to exciting places and writing about them.
I'm Jennifer Errick and this is The Secret Lives of Parks.
I am so proud to announce that The Secret Lives of Parks won two awards earlier this month in the North American Travel Journalist Association Travel Media Awards competition. We were recognized with the gold and the silver awards in the travel podcast category — the gold for Episode 11, Telling the Truth, on the work to create a national park site honoring Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley, and the silver for Episode 9, An American Hero Turns 200, on the deep significance Harriet Tubman still has two centuries after her birth.
We received these honors alongside four awards that NPCA's flagship publication, National Parks Magazine, won, including a gold award for my colleague Katherine DeGroff's delightful cover story last winter, “Park Ink,” on the vibrant community of people devoted to collecting parks stamps.
You can listen to all of our past podcast episodes at thesecretlivesofparks.org and read years’ worth of our insightful, deeply reported magazine features at npca.org/magazine. Thank you to all our readers and listeners for supporting our national park storytelling.
One gray-skied afternoon last November, my wife Elise and I stood in the frigid shallows off Padre Island National Seashore, shifting our weight nervously in bootie-clad feet. Our neoprene wetsuits clung to us as though we'd been shrink-wrapped. Our ungainly windsurfing boards bumped against our knees. The wind so fierce that even the gulls struggled to make headway, kicked up white caps. "The water was 80 degrees two days ago,” said Olivier Jallais, our tan, well-coiffed instructor who looked as unruffled as we felt apprehensive. “A shallow body of water cools down quickly.”
So begins Ben Goldfarb, an award-winning conservation writer whose recent adventures at Padre Island are the basis for Into the Wind. A new feature story in the spring issue of National Parks Magazine, which hits mailboxes this week. Padre Island National Seashore protects the largest, undeveloped barrier island in the world, located on the Gulf Coast of Texas and recognized by the American Bird Conservancy as a globally important bird area. In the feature, Ben describes how he salvages what was supposed to be a sunny kayaking trip after he's instead greeted with chilly, gusty weather. He decides to learn how to windsurf, an activity that has him hurdling again and again from his board into the cold waters of the bay, blurring the line between slapstick comedy and the risk of bodily injury.
This was not the travel assignment Ben had been looking forward to.
Ben Goldfarb: Honestly, I really wanted to go fishing. I'm a very avid fly fisherman and the Laguna Madre, that's the hyper saline lagoon that's trapped between the barrier island, Padre Island and the Texas mainland. It's just a famous, wonderful fishery for sea trout and red fish and all kinds of other species. So when the magazine mentioned, "Hey, what do you think about going to Padre Island?" My fishing radar immediately went up and said, "Oh yeah, I absolutely want to go." Because I want to go kayak fish the Laguna Madre, this famous body of water that I've always read about and seen pictures of in saltwater fishing magazines and had never actually been to myself.
Jennifer Errick: Ben had also convinced his wife Elise to join him, and the two imagined that they'd enjoy a multi-day boating adventure similar to others they'd had at another noteworthy warm weather park.
Ben Goldfarb: My wife came with me and she and I, we love kayak camping. We've done a lot of that in Everglades National Park, just get in a kayak and paddle from island to island or chicky to chicky, they have these wonderful little wooden platforms in the Everglades. So we'd done a number of kayak camping trips and we were like, "Oh, this is going to be fantastic. We'll do the same thing in Padre Island." So that was the concept. We were just going to get in the kayak, pile stuff in, paddle down there and just be in this remote place for a few days.
Jennifer Errick: It wasn't until they arrived at Bird Island Basin, a major access point to the Laguna Madre on the north end of Padre Island, that Ben and Elise realized that their plans would need to change and change fast.
Ben Goldfarb: We've been keeping an eye on the forecast and had a little bit of trepidation and then as soon as we pulled up to Bird Island Basin, which is the part of Padre Island National Seashore that those trips launched from on the Laguna Madres side of the barrier island, it was just instantly clear the moment we got out of the car that this was just nuts. I think it could have theoretically happened, but it would not have been fun. This big weather front had rolled in and the winds were steady 20, 25 miles an hour, gusting to 40 probably. And we realized that if we'd got into our kayaks and tried to go south, we would get to our destination in 15 minutes. The winds were at our back and then we'd never be able to get back again. We would be stuck down there forever, just paddling pointlessly into the teeth of the gale.
Jennifer Errick: And so Ben and Elise decided to sail into a different fate, harnessing the park's famously strong breezes by riding on rented windsurfing boards. Ben wasn't exactly a natural at it and he describes himself early in the story as wobbling to his feet and trying to stay upright like a newborn fawn. I asked if the metaphor came to him in that moment or if he thought of it after he had spent time reflecting on the experience.
Ben Goldfarb: It's definitely an apt metaphor. I was so unstable and shaky and I think that probably did just pop into my head at that moment. I mean, we were out on the Laguna windsurfing, or in my case, attempting to windsurf and every half an hour or so I just try to navigate over to the shore where I had my little pile of belongings, including my notebook, and just jot my impressions from the last 30 minutes or so of splashing face-first into the Laguna repeatedly. I think that came to me and I tried to save it in my head long enough to get back to shore to quickly write it down.
Jennifer Errick: All those notes served Ben well, rolling with the change in plans, he was able to explore the history, beauty and unusual sense of solitude on this barrier island with a poetic elegance that stands in contrast to his shaky start in the lagoon. Here's another passage from the story, setting up an exploration into the island's long geologic and human history.
The day before Elise and I tried our hands at windsurfing, we'd driven four hours to Padre Island from Austin, passed the sprawling petrochemical plants that fringe Corpus Christi, across the causeway that connects the island to the mainland and onto the Seashore's central road. The refineries and motels vanished, replaced by rolling dunes carpeted in blue stem and sea oats, a grassy pelt that shivered and shimmered like the fur of some great mammal. The muted landscape unadorned by trees was shaded in every hue of beige and brown and gray. A few late season monarch butterflies tumbled along on their way to Mexico. It was hard to argue with then Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, who when this land was designated a national seashore in 1962, wrote that “Its great size and remote character give Padre Island a wild spaciousness.”
This quote from Udall is one of several noteworthy historic references that give readers a fuller picture of the island. In another passage that follows, Ben shares part of a letter from Ulysses S. Grant written decades before his time as president and Civil War general, sharing a romantic reflection on the seashore's wind swept beauty. When I asked Ben where he found these fantastic quotes, his answer is one that I and I'm sure other park lovers can relate to.
Ben Goldfarb: That is courtesy of a book that I got at the Padre Island National Seashore visitor center. Mary Jo O'Rear, her book “Barrier to the Bays: The Islands of the Texas Coastal Bend and Their Past.” I always try to, whenever I go on any kind of reporting trip, just read as much as I can, either beforehand or, in this case, as soon as I got back. And this is a fantastic little book that I definitely recommend to anybody interested in the history of Padre Island, because there's just some amazing human history there.
Jennifer Errick: The barrier island's storied past is of course far richer than Ben had room to share in his article.
Ben Goldfarb: So much of the Mexican-American War was staged there and all of the Spanish sailors who were washed ashore in various shipwrecks over the years. This was a little piece of land that was at the center of so many larger geopolitical forces. The Civil War was not exactly fought there, but the Union and the Confederate armies were clashing in that general area. And then all the history of wildlife exploitation too from waterfowl and wading birds being shot for hats to the harvested sea turtles. I mean, just a lot of really amazing history happened on Padre Island and in that larger coastal bend of south Texas.
Jennifer Errick: Ben also shares some of the new threats that climate change is bringing to the island and especially to its wildlife. I asked him if he had been expecting to balance his travel narrative with larger climate themes when he began the story or if the threats became clearer as he spoke with his contacts at the park.
Ben Goldfarb: When you go to a barrier island, you just know that climate change is going to be part of the story. You're at this low-lying, thin slice of land that has water on both sides of it and you don't have to be super well versed in the sea level rise literature to know that that's on the front lines of climate change. And certainly, I mean, that was a some theme that came up in the conversations with all of the conservationists and park staff who I spoke to was, what does the future mean for this barrier island?
Jennifer Errick: He points out a specific example of how sea level rise is having unintended consequences on the parks bird population.
Ben Goldfarb: On the Laguna side of the barrier island, there are all of these little nesting islands. Some of them are natural, but a lot of them were actually created by the Army Corps of Engineers when they dredged out a shipping channel down the Laguna Madre, and they took all of the fill that they dredged up, and they just heaped it to these little islands. And those little islands became these fantastic little nesting and resting spots for this huge array of shorebirds and wading birds that pass across the Laguna Madre during their northern migrations. They're really dependent now on those little islands because so much of their other habitat has been lost to human development.
But now those little islands are vanishing, they're being covered up by sea level rise and they're also eroding really fast because they're just these loose piles of fill from the bottom of the Laguna. And now the Park Service and the Army Corps and various nonprofits that work in that area are wrestling with, what do we do here? These are unnatural habitats that fill a really important function at this point and we're losing them very rapidly. What do we do about that? Do we try to protect them? Do we build new ones? Do we just let sea level rise run its course and hope the birds will figure it out?
As an environmental journalist, I'm just fascinated by those kinds of conflicts. How do we manage nature in a world that we've fundamentally altered as humans?
Jennifer Errick: Ben draws parallels with the last story he wrote for National Parks Magazine in our Summer 2022 issue, Troubled Waters, about invasive fish that were once intentionally stocked in national park lakes and streams and the complex, sometimes counterintuitive measures conservationists have taken to try to undo the damage those animals have caused to native fish and their larger ecosystems. We'll include a link to the story in the show notes.
Ben Goldfarb: There are all of these non-native fish species, rainbow trout, brown trout, brick trout, that were stocked often by the park service in Yellowstone that are now wreaking havoc in many ways on the native cutthroat trout and it's this ecological disaster. But it also forces us to ask some really hard questions about the amount of killing we're willing to do for the sake of, quote-unquote, ‘historic’ or ‘pristine’ or ‘natural’ ecosystems. I think there's an interesting tension in some ways between how we treat individual animals and how we treat entire ecosystems. Now, I'm just drawn to those sorts of ecological conflicts I think.
Jennifer Errick: You might wonder how Ben got the kind of job where people pay him to take trips to national parks and write about them. For him, it started with doing the kind of field work that he now writes about other people doing.
Ben Goldfarb: I've always loved nature in the outdoors and wildlife especially, I've always loved to write. After college, I had a bunch of field ecology tech jobs, I worked for the National Park Service in Yellowstone for a season, did some sea turtle tagging. I worked for the New York City Parks and Recreation Department doing urban forestry work. I always loved that kind of field ecology type work. And somewhere along the line, I just realized that I loved writing about the work more than anything else and over time it just became clear that I wanted to write about the people doing this kind of work rather than be one of those people myself I think.
Jennifer Errick: Ben took trips with his family as a child that sparked his love of the outdoors and laid the foundation for his long-term fascination with a particular charismatic rodent.
Ben Goldfarb: I grew up in the New York City suburbs and my parents and I, we would often go up to the Catskills and the Adirondacks and these wilder, very beaver places in New York. I was always around beavers, hiking, fishing, camping, and I have a very early memory as a kid of being on a lake in a canoe at night and hearing a beaver tail slap three feet from the canoe, which practically gave all of us a heart attack, I think.
But it wasn't really until I became a journalist that I became a true beaver believer, as our little cult of beaver lovers calls themselves. I was looking for things to write about, I was living in Seattle and I went to this beaver workshop. I didn't know what a beaver workshop was, but somebody sent me a flyer and I thought, "Oh, that sounds like maybe there's a story there." So I went to this beaver workshop and it was just this one scientist after another getting up to say their piece about why beavers were so important for salmon habitat creation and stream restoration and fire mitigation and carbon sequestration and water quality, all these incredible ecosystem services that beaver ponds and wetlands provide.
And I realized that this animal that I had grown up with and thought was this cute, fun, interesting rodent, was actually one of the primary movers and shakers in North American ecosystems and was this really important agent of ecological restoration. So I wrote some stories about beavers and that culminated in this book about beavers, Eager, that I wrote and I've been writing about beavers ever since then.
Jennifer Errick: Maybe I was being a little too glib when I asked Ben why he'd go to Padre Island where there are no beavers.
Ben Goldfarb: I have other interests, Jennifer, I'm not just a beaver guy.
Jennifer Errick: Okay, fair enough! But I had to know, did he at least have fun on his trip? I'm not a strong swimmer myself and the idea of falling off a surfboard and then enduring several days of blustery weather is not my idea of a great time.
Ben Goldfarb: Yes, we definitely had fun. I mean, I can't say that every minute was fun. I remember maybe our first or second night there being at our campground. I mean, we're the only tent campers at this campground, everybody else has the good sense to be in their RVs. And we are sitting in this backpacking tent that we were going to take on the kayaking trip and we honestly felt like we were going to be blown away in the night. The fly is just flapping so loud that you know can barely sleep. And a campground host actually asked if we wanted some concrete blocks to use this additional ballast because she was worried about us being blown into the Gulf of Mexico. That wasn't exactly fun.
Jennifer Errick: Still, Ben is a good sport, and the park won him over.
Ben Goldfarb: On the whole, it was fantastic. It's a beautiful place, it's just has this incredibly lovely, very austere beauty about it. There are basically no trees anywhere, it's just this endless rolling set of grassy dunes back dropped by water on both sides. So it's really a unique landscape, quite lovely. I mean, the birding is just amazing. I'm a very casual birder, but I love a good Piping Plover or Ruddy Turnstone or Red Knot as much as the next guy and the birding was just fantastic. So yeah, I had a great time, Jennifer. It's definitely not quite the trip that we were anticipating, but I mean, it's hard to go to a national park and not have a really good time, and I certainly did.
Jennifer Errick: Here's another passage from Ben's story, “Into the Wind,” describing the first night of his stay at Padre Island and highlighting some of the solitude he found at the Seashore.
That night, after we'd disposed of our garbage and eaten a cold dinner at our picnic table, leftover tacos from the roadside diner where we'd grabbed breakfast, we returned to wander the beach. We had the park to ourselves, all the RVers at Malachi Campground seemed to be hunkered in front of the same college football game and even the ghost crab burrows looked vacant. Sheets of wind-blown sand scurried back and forth, a testament to the shifting nature of this place. After we left the beach and took to the main road, we walked straight down its center line, never once disturbed by a car. I wondered how many parks were ever empty enough to permit such a thing.
According to Ben, this solitude stood in contrast to the character and charm of the town surrounding the park.
Ben Goldfarb: In addition to hanging out on Padre Island National Seashore, I also spent a couple of days exploring the area Port Aransas, Corpus Christi, and I loved that whole area, so many wonderful beaches, fantastic seafood. Of course, it's National Parks Magazine, I'm obviously focused on the park, but it would've been fun to write a little bit about the broader geosocial context. I just loved how empty it was, how much solitude you could really find there, very close to the extremely densely settled Texas Gulf Coast. That's pretty unique, I think.
Jennifer Errick: Another big factor that made Ben's trip so special, having Elise with him. Early in his career, Ben would regularly go on reporting trips with her and she was an invaluable sounding board and thoughtful critic of his work. Now, as her own career has taken off, she can't join him as frequently as she used to for these kinds of adventures. But Padre Island brought her a special kind of joy that Ben might just be able to work to his advantage in the future.
Ben Goldfarb: If my wife, Elise, were to listen to this podcast, she would just want me to emphasize how much better she was at windsurfing than I was. She was really a natural. If I was like the newborn fawn, wobbling on his board, she was like the female pronghorn just galloping with incredible facility and adjointness over the prairie. That was just a source of endless delight for her because we also took some video of us windsurfing and a few nights later we were in a hotel on her way back home to Colorado and I just heard her laughing to herself and I looked over and she was just watching the videos of us for the 10,000th time as I just face planted in the Laguna Madre repeatedly.
Elise, if you're listening to this, I acknowledge your windsurfing superiority and I look forward to doing it again with you sometime.
Jennifer Errick: You can read the full story with beautiful photos by Kenny Braun and tips for taking your own trip at npca.org/intothewind.
The Secret Lives of Parks is a production of the National Parks Conservation Association. Episode 16, Behind the Scenes at Padre Island was produced by me, Jennifer Errick, with help from Todd Christopher, Bev Stanton, Rona Marech, Linda Coutant and Vanessa Pius.
Original theme music by Chad Fischer.
Learn more about this podcast and listen to the rest of our stories at thesecretlivesofparks.org.
Read more about the joys and challenges of visiting Padre Island in the spring 2023 issue of National Parks Magazine. This beautiful award-winning quarterly is an exclusive benefit of membership in the National Parks Conservation Association. Start your subscription at npca.org/subscribe.
For more than a century, the National Parks Conservation Association has been protecting and enhancing America's national parks for present and future generations. With more than 1.6 million members and supporters, NPCA is the nation's only independent, nonpartisan advocacy organization dedicated to protecting national parks and we're proud of it too.
Learn more and join us at npca.org.
Did you know that NPCA was just named one of the best places to work and that we're hiring? Check out why so many of us love building our careers as advocates for national parks. Visit us at npca.org/topworkplace to learn more about our four-day work week, our generous benefits and our inclusive work culture. That's npca.org/topworkplace