By Bruce Claflin, Scuttlebutt Magazine
You would be very fortunate indeed if you were able to celebrate 40 years of marriage with your spouse. Let’s face it, 40 years would be a great continuous run at just about anything in this life including jobs, get-togethers with friends, annual hunting or fishing trips, etc. But one Minnesota man has made the same journey, in the same boat, for exactly that long.
We first introduced you to Pete Opitz 10 years ago in the July, 2009 issue of Scuttlebutt. In an article written by Gary Kramer, a Quad-Cities area resident, the author introduced us to Pete saying “In 1979, Pete Opitz bought a 1974 24’ Sea Ray Overnighter. Late in June of that year, he traveled down the Mississippi from Hastings, Minnesota to his boat house on the Black River in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. Later that summer he traveled back north to Hastings. This year, he will make the same trip for the 30th time, and he will make it in the same boat.” Flash forward to 2019 and he’s done it again. Now at age 73, Opitz makes the trip at the same time every year, last Friday in June. He left Hastings on June 28th and arrived in LaCrosse a mere 6 and 20 minutes later. It was his 40th straight year, and the 40th straight year for his trusty Overnighter as well. It was in fact, a new record for Pete, whose fastest trip to date had been 7 hours. But Pete is quick to point out that it’s also taken him as long as 3 days to reach his beloved boat house on the Black River. High water, storms, river traffic, and issues at locks have all conspired to hinder his progress on various trips. Pete credits his record this year to the fact that he traveled alone. In his words, “I didn’t have passengers along who wanted to stop for this or that, here and there. “He also skipped one his own personal pleasures, a visit to the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, a place he loves to stop.
The Overnighter is almost as legendary on the river as it’s owner. Like it’s owner, it is a rare model indeed. Sea Ray only produced the Overnighter model for a few years and you just don’t see them much anymore. It’s a sturdy craft that has a small cabin, but a spacious cockpit that contains a sink, a stove, and an icebox. Pete is proud to say that he does most of the maintenance work on the boat himself and trusts it. It has served his needs.
The transom of the Overnighter reads “River Chef”, a name given to the boat by Pete. You see, Pete loves to cook and he is always happy to share his skills with other boaters. He’s fashioned a fishing net frame into a way to hold his grill overboard while he cooks. His specialty—pizza, or BLTs. He’s been known to carry tomato plants in 5 gallon buckets on his swim platform, so you know he only uses the freshest ingredients. Over the years, he has become known on every bend in the river, by every lockmaster, every dockmaster, and by countless boaters from Hastings to LaCrosse as the ‘River Chef’. He even flies a flag from his Sea Ray bearing the likeness of a pizza and an Italian chef.
Opitz knows this section of river from start to finish. He recalls that in the early years, he and his family would sometimes camp at beaches along the way. Because of necessary dredging, the beaches moved and changed over the years. In 1989, Pete saw a sign offering discounted room rates in the window of what today is the Trempeleau Hotel. He and his family stayed in the hotel that night—and he has stayed at the Trempeleau Hotel for 30 years straight and—you guessed it— in the same room! Pete has a standing reservation at the hotel. They book the room for him every year during their town celebration, “Catfish Days”. Pete says he has an understanding with the hotel that “until they see my name in the obits, I get that room every year for Catfish Days.” Pete is always in the parade that coincides with the weekend celebration, not as the River Chef, but as a Vietnam Vet. He’s proud of his service and shows his pride by marching each year with his veteran brothers. He’s says he’ll march every year, even until he’s the last one left.
Pete Opitz is a man who is true to tradition. He graduated High School, was drafted into service, and upon completion of his tour, went to work for the railroad. He retired as a Conductor after 42 years, and still is a regular rider on the rails between the Twin Cities and LaCrosse. Pete is an affable individual, usually only seconds away from a great story. You can tell he loves life when you speak with him, and you can sense his love of the river in his words as well. On the day I caught up with Pete, he was having breakfast with some friends at a restaurant in LaCrosse. Specifically, he was having breakfast with 4 classmates, all of them 1964 graduates of LaCrosse Aquinas High School. I found out from Pete that his friends, George Bell, Boober McArthur, Jim Bantle, and he had more in common than just that graduation day in 1964. All were drafted into military service together on December 9, 1965. After induction, they went separate ways, but all survived. They still stay in touch although it’s rare they are all together at once. This year afforded the opportunity in advance of their 55th High School reunion. True to his traditions, true to his Country, true to his long time friends, and his trustworthy Sea Ray Overnighter, that’s Pete Opitz.
If you are traveling on the river in late June, or October, when he makes his return to Hastings, keep your eye out for the ‘River Chef’ and her sturdy captain. If you’re lucky, he’ll be cooking pizza and happy to share what I am told is a slice of a wonderful pie. At the very least, he will gladly share any one of the many stories he has accumulated in his years on the river. He is one of a kind and I guarantee it to be a meeting you will remember.
Scuttlebutt thanks Pete for his service, and his willingness to share this story. We would also like to thank Gary Kramer for his excellent reporting on the 30 year anniversary and his input to Scuttlebutt Magazine over the years.