DNR dedicates patrol boat to Frank Opolka

MARQUETTE – Michigan Department of Natural Resources officials dedicated one of the department’s state-of-the-art law enforcement patrol boats Wednesday to Frank Opolka, who served the agency for more than three decades, including many years in the Upper Peninsula.

A ceremony was conducted at the U.S. Coast Guard station in Marquette, where Opolka, DNR Law Enforcement Division officials and others gathered on a dock alongside the 27-foot patrol boat.

“I’m absolutely humbled and honored to have a DNR patrol boat bear my name,” Opolka said. “I’m grateful for this recognition. It’s a great day for my family, my friends who are here today.”

Lt. Pete Wright, DNR district supervisor based in Marquette, said the boat was manufactured by Safe Boats International in Washington State. The vessel has a 10-foot beam and a dry weight of just over 5 tons and is powered by twin 300-horsepower V-tech outboard motors and has a 200-gallon gas tank.

The watercraft was purchased with federal Port Security grant funding and will be used to patrol Lake Superior, from Marquette County, west.

Opolka posed for pictures of the boat with DNR officers and his wife, Barbara.

“This is a great thing that we’re doing here today,” said DNR Law Enforcement Division Chief Gary Hagler. “It’s a true honor to be here this morning on the Lake Superior shore and what a fitting location to honor Frank Opolka, one of the DNR Law Enforcement Division’s finest, and truly, one of the department’s finest.”

Before his work with the DNR began, Opolka served in the U.S. Marine Corps, received a bachelor’s degree from Northern Michigan University and taught high school biology classes for a couple of years.

“Now that I have this patrol boat named after me, I’m sure I can call the officers who are in charge – at any time – they’ll take me out to Stannard Rock lake trout fishing,” Opolka joked.

Opolka said he tried to put the recognition he received Wednesday in some sort of perspective.

“It’s all part of a journey of life,” Opolka said. “And my journey with the DNR began 50 years ago.”

In July 1964, Opolka was one of 10 conservation officers hired who became part of the Field Administration, which after a year was split into the DNR’s fire and law enforcement divisions.

“Prior to 1966, conservation officers drove their own vehicles,” Opolka said. “We received $7.60 a day per diem to drive the vehicles. Of course, as a recruit, when you came in with your car – the older officers being a little smarter than you – they liked to ride along with you.”

His first patrol car was a 1962 Pontiac Catalina, his first new car.

“I watched in horror as the radio tech drilled a 4-inch gap out of my rear fender and put a 10-foot antenna on the back and then opened the trunk and mounted a generator,” Opolka said.

The radio was powered by the generator in the trunk.

“When you were on patrol, and particularly a stakeout of some sort, you had to continually run the car if you were going to use your radio, because if you did not, the generator would kill your battery,” Opolka said. “And there were many COs that walked many miles looking for a jump to get their car started.”

In 1969, the justice of the peace system was replaced by the district court system.

“This was quite a transition for conservation officers,” Opolka said.

During the justice of the peace days, the process was far more informal.

“When you picked up a violator in the middle of the night, you’d make a call and the justice of the peace met you in his office or his home at 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 o’clock in the morning, it made no difference,” Opolka said. “When we left the JP system and we went to the district court system, the whole legal process had changed and we began hearing things like Miranda rights.”

Opolka said he had apprehended a couple of men shooting grouse out of season in January. He scheduled them for a district court hearing.

“We went in and here comes the judge with his flowing black robes on, really a switch from the old JPs – if you caught them sober, that was a good thing,” Opolka said.

Opolka said the judge banged his gavel on the desk, read the complaint and asked if Opolka had read the men their Miranda rights. He hadn’t and the judge quickly dismissed the case.

“We learned a lot from that process,” Opolka said.

In the late 1970s, the first female conservation officers were hired by the DNR.

“It was an excellent addition to the force,” Opolka said.

The 1970s also saw a lot of “unrest” in the state parks, particularly in southeast Michigan. With a shortage of conservation officers, the DNR would park patrol vehicles at the entrance of state parks, the officer would patrol at another park.

“Just the presence of that vehicle would sometimes slow down the activity that occurred in these parks,” Opolka said.

With the growing popularity of snowmobiles, Opolka served on a task force with Minnesota and Wisconsin officials to develop regulations for snowmobiles. The same process was later undertaken for off-road vehicles.

In the early 1970s, the Limited Entry Commercial Fish Program banned the use of gill nets on the Great Lakes, leading “to many unhappy commercial fishermen,” Opolka said.

“We had patrol boats like we have here and some of those patrol boats were shot at from shore by whomever,” Opolka said. “So, there was a lot of confrontation going on back then.”

After serving as a conservation officer for seven years in Escanaba and Crystal Falls, Opolka went to Lansing and became administrative assistant to the Law Enforcement Division chief. In 1978, he became the chief. He had also received a master’s degree from Michigan State University.

During the 1980s, the DNR received an award from the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Officers for its development – under Opolka’s guidance – of the agency’s Report All Poachers tip line program.

“The biggest challenge back then of course, in the ’80s and ’90s, was the off-reservation hunting and fishing and trapping rights,” Opolka said. “We had numerous meetings, just hundreds and hundreds of hours of meetings, and eventually came to the agreement which is in effect today.”

In 1985, Opolka became the DNR’s deputy director for the U.P., stationed in Marquette.

Opolka said his journey did not end in 1995 when he retired. DNR Director K.L. Cool asked him to come back for another year, which he did. Opolka said the journey was capped off this July when he received a letter from Lt. Andrew Turner telling him about the dedication of the patrol boat in his name.

In the letter, Turner explained that the DNR Law Enforcement Division has a long tradition of naming vessels after extraordinary law enforcement employees.

Past recipients include those who lost their lives in the line of duty, employees whose service was highly-honorable or employees whose contributions were instrumental in bringing about significant praiseworthy change.

Turner said Opolka fit that criteria.

Thanking the gathered crowd Wednesday, Opolka said of the recognition: “That’s a wonderful way to cap off a 50-year journey with the Department of Natural Resources.”