Start ’em young, listen to what they want to do, and remember that it’s OK if it’s still a work in progress.
On the southern tip of Lake Michigan, in the small town of Beverly Shores, Rafi Wilkinson spends his days as an engineer and a National Park Service volunteer. He’s an Eagle Scout, loves Indiana, but also has a cabin in Steamboat, Colorado, and talks fondly of skiing powder on Rabbit Ears Pass. Ask him about his bucket list and it starts with when the kids move to college and he moves to Colorado full time. This summer, he’s rafting the Grand Canyon with his dad—who’s 78 years old.
TS: How did you get into the outdoors?
RW: I grew up in a rural town on the Wisconsin border on a gravel road, and we had an acre of trees in our backyard. I’d explore and camp out there a lot. It’s sort of always been in me, and now that I have four kids, I’m getting them into it.
TS: Do you remember the first time you camped?
RW: I don’t remember the first time I camped out, but I do remember camping a lot when I was young and also with my Boy Scout troop, which was affiliated with a local church that owned some land out back.
TS: What was it about the outdoors that you liked growing up?
RW: I’m an engineer and I’m very analytical, so what I loved the most was deciding what I needed to take for the day and why. I also love photography. I used to have a cheap Nikon camera, but my wife recently bought me a Nikon D750.
TS: Living in the Midwest, you don’t have the big mountains or vast wilderness spaces found in some more Western states, so what keeps you coming back?
RW: Here in the Midwest, you have these shorter preserves. For instance, you get to go and hike among old growth trees in Warren Wood, but the trail’s only two miles long, so the classic long overnighters aren’t possible. You have to appreciate what you have.
What most people don’t know is that Indiana Dunes is the seventh most biologically diverse park in the National Park System. We have orchids, jack pine trees, prickly pear cacti, and steel mills close by. The lake is the centerpiece, and since we’re on the eastern shore, we get killer sunsets. I could show you pictures and you’d wonder if they were taken in California or Hawaii.
TS: So what do you enjoy most about hiking?
RW: It’s a complicated answer for me. When I’m hiking, it clears my mind. As a hiker, you’re just taking it all in. Sometimes I tell my kids for the next 15 minutes we won’t say a word. Then, there are some hikes where I’ll bring my camera along and make the experience about photography.
I struggle with my background to conserve and protect nature, though. Sometimes I have to pick up every piece of trash and move every stick in the way, and sometimes I have to tell myself to just go out there and experience it.
TS: Do you prefer early morning or early evening to hike?
RW: I like to be out in the wilderness in the early morning. You’re not as clouded by the day’s events and what’s transpired that day if you’re out at 5 a.m.
TS: What’s on your bucket list?
RW: I’d like to go to more national parks and especially hike down to Phantom Ranch in the Grand Canyon. I’d also like to take my wife up a 14er. There’s a lot I’d like to do, but a two-to-four-day backcountry hike in different parks is right up there along with a longer thru-hike.
TS: As a father, how did you get your kids excited about the outdoors?
RW: It’s still a work in progress. Part of it is starting at an early age, and then you have to work within their desires. I have two kids who would be willing to pull a backcountry permit for four days, while one that would rather just do a day hike.
TS: What’s your favorite local hike?
RW: My go-to is Trail 9 in the dunes. You start in the oaks, one dune away from the lake, and then hike up 100 feet to a beautiful view of the lake and Chicago.
This profile is part of our Project Profile series.