On Saturday, July 25, Mark Zitnik and his family were taking a boat ride on Lake Superior to celebrate his engagement to Abbey Kelto of Munising. They were touring the Pictured Rocks shoreline on Kelto’s family’s boat when Zitnik, a 2006 Newberry High School graduate, heard a cry for help.
Zitnik, an off-duty Michigan Department of Natural Resources Conservation officer, asked his family to be quiet.
He heard another cry for help and saw people onshore screaming and pointing toward two swimmers struggling in the water. They were about 200 yards from Zitnik’s boat.
The swimmers had been wading in shallow water covering a sandbar, but they ended up in deep water with a strong current, and about 75 yards from shore.
Accelerating the boat to reach the swimmers, Zitnik dove from the moving vessel once he was 10-15 yards from the swimmer who appeared to be having the most trouble.
“The young man was struggling,” said Rosa Zitnik, Mark’s mother, who lives in Newberry. Rosa was on the boat at the time.
“He’d go down, then up, and down and up,” she said. “He was trying to keep up as best he could, but then he’d go down.”
Using a water rescue hold he learned during his Michigan Conservation Officer Academy water training, Mark pulled the swimmer’s back to his own chest and wrapped an arm around the man. The swimmer panicked and struggled.
Rosa called out to the swimmer, asking him not to fight her son.
Mark identified himself as a conservation officer and rescue swimmer in an attempt to calm the man. After a brief struggle, Mark swam the man back to the boat his family was waiting in. The man said that Mark had saved his life.
“He didn’t realize how far it was and how deep it was,” Rosa said. “He just got gassed.”
Meanwhile, another boat came to the second swimmer, who climbed aboard.
Both swimmers made it safely back to shore and rejoined their friends and families.
“A conservation officer is never truly off-duty,” said DNR Law Enforcement Division Chief Gary Hagler. “Officer Mark Zitnik is a prime example of the training and dedication that all conservation officers commit to. Without hesitating, he risked his life while with his own family to save these two men.”
Zitnik patrols Alger County and has been with the DNR Law Enforcement Division since January 2015. Prior to that, he was in the Secret Service during the Obama administration. He is highly certified as a swimmer and has received other awards during his service. His awards include Physical Training – Best Overall Performance, and Physical Training – Most Supportive/Best Team Player in 2010 at MCOLES graduation at Lake Superior State University, and Distinguished Fitness Award in 2011 at graduation for the Secret Service. He later graduated from the Special Operations Division Emergency Response Team in 2013. He graduated with the DNR in 2015.
Rosa and his family were already very proud of him.
Mark didn’t intend to share the rescue story, Rosa said. As it turned out, a DNR captain from Sault Ste. Marie spread the word, which has since been widely publicized in news organizations.
“We were there at the right time,” Rosa said. “It was just perfect.”
As for his engagement, which prompted the boat ride in the first place: Mark and Abbey are planning an August 2021 wedding.
-With reporting from Carol Stiffler.