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Manes: One of the faces behind a local treasure

Garry Traynham  |  Jeff Manes/For Sun-Times Media

Garry Traynham | Jeff Manes/For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: August 3, 2014 6:13AM



“The Dunes are to the Midwest what the Grand Canyon is to Arizona and Yosemite is to California. They constitute a signature of time and eternity. Once lost, the loss would be irrevocable.”

— Carl Sandburg

Garry Traynham, deputy superintendent of the 15,000-acre Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, is nearing retirement. Our interview took place in the conference room at the headquarters off of Mineral Springs Road in Porter.

Traynham, 59, lives in an unincorporated area of LaPorte near Rolling Prairie with his wife Audrey.

***

“I was born in High Point, North Carolina,” Traynham began.

Garry, I was traveling through North Carolina once and stopped in the mountains of Asheville. I ordered a pizza with pork topping and almost died — food poisoning. I don’t think those folks knew what a pizza was.

“Ha! To be honest, I don’t think I had a pizza until I was in college. We were raised on farm food.”

At what college did you attend?

“North Carolina State. I have a degree in forest resources.”

First job after college?

“On the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia. It runs from Shenandoah National Park to the Great Smokies. It’s 460 miles long. I started as a seasonal employee at a place called the Peaks of Otter. I was there for a total of eight years.”

When did you eventually transfer to the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore?

“In 1997. I have 37 years with the National Park Service.”

How old is this building?

“It dates back to the 1950s. It was actually a Nike missile base. The park acquired it in the early ’70s. The basketball courts you see out there were for the enlisted folks who were here. Where we’re sitting was the kitchen and dining area. The missile silos were located about a mile from here.”

Your duties as deputy superintendent?

“I’m in charge of the operation. We have five different lines of business here. We have a resource management division, we have a visitor protection or law enforcement division, we have a maintenance operation, we have an administrative group and we have an interpretation and education group. I oversee those five divisions. Each one has a division chief.

“I take care of most of things that are inside the park. The superintendent takes care of the things that are outside the park. Such as the relationships with the communities, with the congressional delegation, with counties and so forth.”

Tell me about the history of the park including the Indiana Dunes State Park.

“The state park actually predates the National Lakeshore. Back in 1916, there was a group of people who wanted to create a Great Sand Dunes National Park. It included what is now the state park and what is now the national lakeshore. The state park went ahead and created the state park. The national lakeshore got caught up in World War I and did not get designated until the mid-1960s.”

Enter the late, great Sen. Paul Douglas.

“Yes, legislation for the national lakeshore was going through Congress when he passed.”

How many people visit the national lakeshore?

“More than 2 million.”

Getting inner-city kids to enjoy the great outdoors.

“One of the things that certainly has kept me here over the years is the impact the national lakeshore has on urban youth. We have the Dunes Learning Center, which is our residential environmental education center. Kids from urban areas will come here and spend three days and two nights. Many of these children have never spent a night away from street light.

“They come out here and get immersed in it. It’s a treat to see those kids kind of get turned on by the out of doors. We have kids enjoying this experience from all over Northwest Indiana and as far away as Chicago and Indianapolis. I’m tickled that we can provide that.”

That’s great. You never know, some kid who has lived in subsidized housing all his or her life might think, “Hey, this is really cool. I’d like to be like Garry Traynham when I grow up.”

“We’ve had kids who have come through and gone on to work for various parks throughout the country. There’s an African-American gentleman who is now down in Missouri and is an outdoor writer. One of his exposures was here at the learning center. We’ve exchanged emails. That’s the kind of impact we enjoy having on kids. To show them what the opportunities are for having a career in the outdoors or just an understanding or appreciation of the outdoors.”

National Lakeshore is truly an ecological gem.

“Jeff, the biodiversity here is incredible. We have plants from the arctic that meet plants from the desert in this location. Arctic bearberry grows here in a small marsh and we have prickly pear cactus which grows at places like West Beach. We have more species of orchids than the state of Hawaii. This a major viewing spot for migratory birds in the fall. We have populations of deer, beaver, muskrat and coyote. There are a number of different species that meet and cross here. We have the Karner blue butterfly here, which is a threatened and endangered species. This is one of the few places on the planet that they’re still left. It’s a special place and we just want people to value it.”

I was doing a little sightseeing before our interview just on the other side of Mineral Springs toward Dune Acres and saw a pair of sandhill cranes with chicks. This is June. Pretty cool.

“That’s great to hear. That’s interesting because that area you drove past north on Minerals Springs is one of the areas we’ve been working to restore for more than a year.

“A lot of the area within the national lakeshore has been ditched and drained for farming and that sort of thing, and that’s understandable, but we’re trying to restore and re-create that great marsh environment that existed 150 years ago.”

Very good.

“Somebody told me that at one time, you could canoe all the way from Michigan City to Gary.”

I believe it. Final thoughts?

“Many people from this area are never going to get the opportunity to visit the Yellowstones, the Yosemites, the Everglades, but they do get the opportunity to visit the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. That’s what we are to many area folks; we’re their neighborhood national park. We enjoy that role and we take it very, very seriously. We look forward to continuing that.”

***

Most of what Garry does consists of paperwork, computers and telephone calls. He doesn’t get outdoors as much as he’d like. His two adult children live out West. He says that’s where he’s heading in retirement. Near the snow-capped mountains and bugling elks.

Garry Traynham will leave the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore a better place than when he got here in ’97. I wish him the best and I’m glad to have met him.



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