By Claire Kurnick
Since the age of five I have joined my family for the packed car ride north from suburban Detroit to enjoy the bliss and peace of summers in Leland. After my parents’ divorce, my mother wanted to leave Bloomfield Hills and move north, but it wasn’t until she became an empty nester that she decided to move to Leland full-time. She chose Leland because it had always been our home away from home. My love for the place has always included the natural wonders the Leelanau Peninsula has to offer. But now that I am not just a summer visitor, I have come to know and love the community of Leland better than before.
My name is Claire Kurnick. I am a global studies and sustainability student at the University of Denver. Though I chose to study in Denver for the university’s academic opportunities, I was also drawn to the mountains and the range of outdoor activities. Unfortunately, I had neglected one thing: Colorado is a land-locked state. Before heading to Colorado I hadn’t asked myself, “How would I be affected by living in a state that isn’t surrounded by water?”
Each time I returned home to Michigan I would be in awe. Not only was there access to water at every turn, but there was also vast green everywhere I looked. Being in Colorado made me appreciate the natural resources that I’d known most of my life. The more I have been away from the water, the more my love has grown for freshwater resources, Great Lakes maritime culture, and my home state of Michigan.
I have channeled my love of water into my studies. I chose to focus on resource management, most notably the conservation of freshwater and its impact on health and development across the world. This is what brought me to Fishtown this summer as an intern for the Fishtown Preservation Society. I am curious to learn, experience and understand the culture and dynamics of Fishtown. Not everyone thinks about this as they stroll the docks on a warm summer day, but Fishtown, from its setting to its fishing activities, is a place that can be highly affected by freshwater issues.
I first learned the value of Fishtown and its connection to fish from my grandfather. When we were kids my grandfather would drag my siblings and me to Fishtown for smoked fish from Carlson’s because, he said, no one smokes fish like Carlson’s anymore. Although we would be begging for a sandwich from the Village Cheese Shanty, my grandfather wanted us to appreciate the smell, the work that went into it, and the cultural value of the fish. He also wanted us to enjoy eating it as much as he did. To this day, to my grandfather smoked fish is not just a delicacy, but an art.
I may have been too young to understand then, but now as a 22-year old woman studying issues of conservation, I am eager to learn more about the complexities of Fishtown that are beneath the surface of its summer fun. As I write, I have been working for a month and am just beginning to know the faces and history of Fishtown. In the past my trips to Fishtown were to shop and enjoy with family and friends, but now, as an intern, I get to work side-by-side with the people who keep the history and culture of this place alive.
One of the people that I am coming to know as a familiar face is Alan Priest. Al is one of the men behind the smoked fish you can buy at Carlson’s. He also used to captain the Janice Sue for many decades, providing Fishtown visitors with locally caught chub. Growing up in the summers here I would always see the Janice Sue and the Joy tied up at the Fishtown docks. But prior to this summer I didn’t know that the boats are some of the few that still fish commercially in the Great Lakes. I also didn’t know that there are only thirteen state-licensed commercial fishing families in the State of Michigan, operating only 50 commercial fishing licenses. I also had not known that Fishtown Preservation own and operate the Joy and Janice Sue with two of those licenses as part of their mission, continuing the traditional skills for the public to enjoy. This adds value to Fishtown’s integrity—continuing unbroken the heritage of commercial fishing in Leland for more than 170 years—but it is one of the organization’s challenges to maintain the fishery.
When working alongside Fishtown Preservation’s staff and the business owners who lease the Fishtown shanties I have come to value the stories that I hear. In all my years of visiting Fishtown I never heard the personal experiences and stories that reveal so much about Fishtown. Now, I find myself going home to my family and friends enthusiastic to tell them about all I have learned each day. And that is my goal for this summer—to share some of these stories with others, to spread some of the enthusiasm to those who are, like I was, largely unaware of the hidden complexities and beauty of Fishtown.
While the experience of Fishtown in and of itself can be unforgettable, hearing stories is what allows for a deeper connection to and deeper understanding of the place, beyond being a casual visitor. It is my hope to share the stories I hear so others can build a greater connection to Fishtown and want to help preserve the place, as well as the stories and traditions it holds.