National, state parks showcase history, nature

2014-03-16T00:00:00Z 2014-03-16T00:31:08Z National, state parks showcase history, natureJoyce Russell joyce.russell@nwi.com, (219) 762-1397, ext. 2222 nwitimes.com

Rafi Wilkenson has lived in Chicago and South Bend. It wasn't until recently he found what lies in between.

"When I first moved here, I only saw steel mills. Now I see sand dunes," said Wilkenson, who, with his family, recently settled in Beverly Shores.

Since moving here, Wilkenson said he's discovered both the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and Indiana Dunes State Park. He volunteers at the IDNL visitor center.

An avid hiker, Wilkenson said he's hiked every mile of the state park's trail system and is cataloging for future mapping and signage.

"I love the outdoors," he said, adding that Trail 9 at the state park is his favorite. He admits he's "hooked" on its vistas of sand dunes and Lake Michigan.

"We are blessed that it has not been touched since 1926," said Wilkenson, who has formed an informal group of hiking friends which once a month takes off on a park trail and explores.

The parks are wonderful, he said, because they are so close. for Wilkenson, it's no more than a 20-minute drive to reach Miller Woods, Mount Baldy or Pinhook Bog.

"You don't have to dedicate a weekend to go elsewhere. Its all here," said Wilkenson, adding he became a volunteers because he wanted to be a steward of the parks and make a difference.

While it's the outdoors that keeps Wilkenson enthralled with the parks, it's the history and the educational possibilities that keeps Porter resident Zella Olson coming back.

She began volunteering in 1981 at Chellberg Farm and serves as president of the Friends of Indiana Dunes which helps sponsor programs at both parks.

"They are very important for the children," she said about the parks.

"Some have never seen the lake when they come out here," she said, adding it thrills her to see the eyes of a child as she operates an old-fashioned apple peeler in the kitchen at Chellberg Farm.

Both Wilkenson and Olson agree the programming and events at the parks offer something for everyone who visits.

"They offer more programs than you could ever do," said Wilkenson, from a concert celebrating the summer solstice to learning how to prune trees properly at the Douglas Center to learning about birds which live or migrate through the region at the Indiana Dunes State Park.

Some 3 million people apparently agree with Wilkenson and Olson. That's about how many people visit the two parks during a year.

In 2010, the national park had some 2.1 million visitors, bringing about $63.5 millions in spending to the communities that call part of the national lakeshore their home, according to a study by the National Park Service. About 60 percent of the visitors come from outside the state.

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