Postcard from paradise: Needing to get out, a young man looks to the water

Petoskey High School graduate Kenny Forton, currently waiting tables, plans to leave after studying to become commercial ship operator. (Photo by John Russell)

NEXT POSTCARD: Not a book learner, but put a torch in his hands and sparks fly →

On a slow weekday winter night with just a handful of customers at Petoskey Brewing, waiter Kenny Forton brought a craft beer and sandwich to an out-of-town visitor. With time for conversation, he said he realized a few years ago the path he must take. “My parents always said, 'If you want to make money, you've got to get out of here,'” he said. Forton had a tight group of friends at Petoskey High School, where he graduated in 2013. They bonded as members of the varsity hockey team.

“We were incredibly close. But all my friends, at one point or another, we all knew. We all knew we had to work, we had to get out. It was kind of sad.” And so they scattered – one to the Marines, one to Lawrence Technological University near Detroit and another to Hope College in Holland.

Forton, 20, is charting a course he hopes will set him free. Now enrolled at North Central Michigan College in Petoskey, a community college, he intends to transfer to the Great Lakes Maritime Academy in Traverse City. If he successfully completes its four-year program, he will be licensed to operate ocean-going or Great Lakes commercial ships. One of only seven maritime academies in the United States, it is the nation's only freshwater maritime school. His career choice was born of the passion that infects many who come of age in this region. Growing up on Crooked Lake northeast of Petoskey, he loved to jet ski or sail – especially when the wind was up. “All my life I was on a lake and my favorite thing ever is when it's wavy out, when the waves are really big, I like to get out. That was right up my alley.”

Forton understands the Maritime Academy program will be rigorous, with plenty of math and science. But, he says, “I've already got my head down and I am going for it. It's scary to think about a life where you can't take of yourself or your family.

“That right there is plenty of motivation for me.”

– Ted Roelofs

NEXT POSTCARD: Not a book learner, but put a torch in his hands and sparks fly →

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