Robert Brink dipped his fishing line off the handicapped-accessible pier at the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk Park one recent afternoon.
"This should have been here when I was a kid. It would have given us something to do," the lifelong region resident said of the park, part of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.
Brink, 58, now of Lake Station, recalled building fires along the beach and fishing for smelt, taking walks in the sand with his wife and visiting the historical Bailly Homestead a time or two.
But Brink, like many area residents, didn't make the immediate connection among all those activities -- that they had all taken place within what is now the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.
He's not alone. Even those such as Saundra Goldsby, of Gary, who volunteers there regularly at the lakeshore, haven't toured the width and breadth of the 15,000 acres of beach, woods, marshes and prairies that comprise the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.
Goldsby, a retired teacher, used to bring her children to the Paul H. Douglas Environmental Education Center. They earned their Junior Ranger badges there. When she retired, she decided to volunteer. She helps at the front desk and contributes artwork for educational displays at the center, in Gary's Miller section.
But Goldsby hasn't ventured out to other national lakeshore sites. She planned to make her first trip this weekend to the Bailly Homestead/Chellberg Farm area in Porter, to volunteer at the Duneland Heritage Days Festival.
The Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore reflects that contradiction. It is one of 393 units of the National Park System, yet many local residents think of it as their neighborhood park.
"It is an asset to the region," said lakeshore Superintendent Costa Dillon. "It is a national park that has importance to the nation as a whole. Few people recognize how rare it is to have a national park in their community."
While 85 percent of its approximate 2 million visitors each year go only to the beaches, the national park also contains significant historical sites and is known nationally and internationally for its ecological diversity.
It is that huge range of flora and fauna that prompted the movement nearly 100 years ago to preserve the dunes.
"People don't know what the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is to this day," Dillon said. "People tend to think of the park as the beach. People don't view the park holistically."
U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky called the Dunes an "incredible international resource."
"It is a magnet," the Merrillville Democrat said. "It is a great value as far as the quality of life of Northwest Indiana in keeping and attracting people."
Dillon and Visclosky said the national park, though 44 years old, still has unrealized potential.
"For most of its history, it has been a work in progress," Visclosky said.
The idea to preserve the Dunes began in the late 19th century, when University of Chicago professor Henry Cowles brought international attention to Dunes ecosystems.
The national lakeshore has grown to encompass more than 15,000 acres spread across Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties. The 100 miles of park meander through 15 communities. The 2,182-acre Indiana Dunes State Park sits in the middle.
Refining its mission, luring visitors
The park's configuration makes it unique and sometimes difficult to understand, Dillon said. Park officials are ramping up efforts to help residents and visitors explore more of the park's many amenities and charms, including improving signs and visibility of rangers and increasing its outreach program to Chicago-area institutions such as the Chicago Botanic Garden and the Field Museum of Natural History.
Nicole Kamins, executive director of Save the Dunes, one of the groups that was a driving force behind creating the park, said the lakeshore is a rarity because of its accessibility and location in an urban, highly industrialized area. But its fragmented nature does cause connectivity problems, she said.
Those issues, Kamins said, can be addressed by continually educating the public, particularly on environmental issues.
Other goals for enhancing the park's future include protecting the integrity of its boundaries, improving visitor access and recreational opportunities, maintaining biological diversity and keeping an eye on pollution, Dillon said.
Visclosky said Congress has spent $30.7 million to acquire land within the park, and there is still additional land within designated boundaries to be acquired.
The Marquette Greenway Plan, conceived decades ago by Visclosky, looks to reclaim 75 percent of Northwest Indiana's lakefront for public use. It is compatible with the national lakeshore's preservation goals. As the Marquette Plan moves forward, he hopes it will resolve some of the connectivity issues.