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Volunteer Bike Patrol: ‘Indispensable’

The C&O Canal Volunteer Bike Patrol has become essential to the Park Service in less than three years.

A woman described her missing son to a park ranger near the Great Falls Tavern at Great Falls National Park on a Sunday in late March. The park ranger then spoke into his radio, and with that, the physical description of the missing boy was relayed to the C&O Canal National Historic Park Volunteer Bike Patrol.

Two miles down the towpath near Old Angler’s Inn, Bike Patrol volunteer Norman Liebow listened to the description on his radio. Liebow, of Potomac, then pedaled towards Great Falls, on the lookout for an eight-year-old boy with straight brown hair, wearing a green turtleneck shirt.

On this occasion, the search proved to be mercifully short, and the boy’s father located him without the benefit of the Bike Patrol. However, the fact that a Park Service ranger so promptly contacted Liebow speaks volumes about the significance the Volunteer Bike Patrol has come to hold in less than three years of existence.

“Basically, they’re indispensable,” said Kathleen Kelly, a park ranger at Great Falls National Park.

THE VOLUNTEER BIKE PATROL BEGAN in 1999 and has grown quickly. Nancy Poe, currently the Partnership Coordinator with the National Park Service in Sharpsburg, Md., oversaw the program as it began. From the outset, the organization’s founders were surprised at the amount of interest generated by the new program.

“We had a tremendous outpouring of volunteers,” said Poe.

Many of the original Bike Patrol volunteers were already familiar with the canal and its towpath. Among the first to join was Stephen DeLanoy of Bethesda, who was on the Bike Patrol during its first day of operation.

“I’ve been a member of the C&O Canal Association for years and we have work parties that come out anyway, so I knew some of the people involved,” said DeLanoy. “I’ve been coming here since I was four, and I have a great love for this place. We’re blessed to have something so unique in our own backyard … . It was fun to get it started.”

During her two-year tenure as Volunteer Coordinator, Poe dealt with logistics of the operation, recording the contacts the Bike Patrol volunteers made with park visitors, such as First Aid contacts, interpretive contacts or any type of interaction. The growth of the Bike Patrol in volunteers and significance led to its division four regions of the park.

However, it is the section between Great Falls and the canal’s terminus in Georgetown, which attracts the most visitors, and thus has the greatest need for the Bike Patrol. This is also where there are the most volunteers, who generally patrol parts of the park close to where they live.

DELANOY DESCRIBES last Sunday's incident with the missing boy as one of the many situations a Bike Patrol volunteer may expect.

“We’re usually the first people out here, so we’re more apt to come across it,” said DeLanoy. “Many times we’ve helped with lost kids, lost adults, [or] old-timers who just wandered off, so it’s a little bit of everything.”

Such was the idea behind the bike patrol, whose presence up and down the canal’s 184-mile towpath helps the park rangers overcome limitations imposed by their numbers. The volunteers carry out such functions as communicating problems to the rangers, providing First Aid and answering questions visitors may have.

“This is how many people see us, through a bike patrol contact,” said Poe. “We’re not able to be out there as much as we’d like to, so they’re our eyes and ears.”

In this way, the Bike Patrol facilitates the National Park Service in its interpretive and law enforcement functions. While not replacements for the park rangers, the volunteers help extend the range of the Park Service and enable it to operate more smoothly.

“THERE ARE NOT ENOUGH rangers,” said Liebow, a retiree living in Potomac. “We’d like to have more of them out, but unfortunately, there are not enough. We are able to see the problems, and with our radios report them back to the rangers so that they can come out and support us.”

All volunteers undergo training in First Aid and park interpretation before they may patrol the park. Those interested in joining the Bike Patrol are first interviewed by the National Park Service. Afterwards, they join veteran Bike Patrol volunteers on a four-hour shift, and it is only if they remain interested that they attend orientation sessions and a CPR/First Aid certification course.

Generally speaking, the number of volunteers patrolling the path will be indicative of the number of visitors out on that day. In fact, it is part of the Volunteer Bike Patrol’s mission statement that the volunteers “provide a professional presence along the towpath trail during times of peak visitation.”

The Park Service cancels its operation of the canal boats at Great Falls and Georgetown on days when the heat index is over 105 degrees Fahrenheit, or during thunderstorms. Kelly encourages the volunteers to follow suit. However, there remain a number of patrol members who face the gamut of elements.

“We do not require them to go out in inclement weather, but many of the most dedicated ones will go out,” said Kelly. “Like the mail service, they’re out there in all kinds of weather.”

ON OCCASION, the bike patrol has responded to emergency situations. During a patrol on the Billy Goat Trail last summer, DeLanoy found himself involved in a life-or-death situation. A fellow bike patrol member had just spoken with a group of visitors who were swimming in the Potomac River and diving off cliffs into the water. As the two discussed the encounter, they heard the group on the opposite side of the river, shouting for help after one of them passed out from heat exhaustion.

“By standing on the rocks yelling back and forth, I had a pretty good idea what his condition was, and that it was kind of critical,” said DeLanoy. “At the time, I couldn’t reach any rangers; we were having trouble getting through, and the guy was fading fast, so I took it on myself. It was kind of stupid at the time, but I was going to swim across the river with my First Aid supplies and ice packs.”

DeLanoy, who has gone through first responders’ emergency medical training, was towed across the river by one of the kayakers. He then stabilized the victim by using ice packs and making a shelter from the sun.

“They said he probably would have perished like that football player [Korey Stringer of the Minnesota Vikings] did earlier that summer,” said DeLanoy.

DeLanoy’s efforts with the Bike Patrol were recognized when he was named the Capital Region 2001 Volunteer of the Year by the National Park Service. He accepted the award at the Northeast Region National Park Service Superintendents' Conference in Farmington, Pa.

AFTER THE MISSING BOY reunited with his parents last Sunday, the Bike Patrol members could attend to more routine functions. Liebow met several visitors, chatted with them awhile, and diplomatically disabused them of their plans for the day — a hike from Great Falls to Georgetown and back. Pulling out a park map to show the ambitious visitors, Liebow convinced them that at 3 p.m., they were unlikely to complete the 28-mile trek before sundown. The visitors left with park maps in their hands, smiles on their faces and a more feasible itinerary: a stroll down the towpath past Widewater to the bike detour by Old Angler’s Inn, then back.

“The people provide us with interesting episodes, interesting problems, and interesting solutions,” said Liebow. “They’re just lovely people, the guests to the park; we like to talk to them, and find out more about them. We give them interpretation, some information, or whatever they need.”

It is this type of service that is more commonplace for the Bike Patrol, Liebow points out. However, the organization’s routine functions are welcome by the Park Service and many visitors. The mere sight of a Bike Patrol member is a significant comfort to many using the path.

“IF YOU’RE OUT HERE walking by yourself, it gets a little spooky between locks, and you feel like you’re in a remote place,” said John Artz, a volunteer from North Potomac who joined the Bike Patrol in September. “Having somebody go by with an orange vest and a radio makes people feel a lot better.”

When it is time to lay down the law, the volunteers occupy a middle ground between the Park Rangers and visitors, and this can be beneficial to all sides.

“They tell people about the importance of keeping dogs on a leash, and they tell people how dangerous it is to walk out on rocks in the Potomac River,” said Kelly. “Sometimes people feel more comfortable that it’s a volunteer instead of a park ranger.”

In less frequently traveled regions of the park, the Bike Patrol volunteers interact with fewer visitors, but prove beneficial in different ways. Volunteer Lowell Markey patrols the far end of the towpath in the area near Cumberland, Md. While Markey has experienced some minor First Aid situations and has assisted park rangers with fallen trees, his Bike Patrol duties tend to be more of the interpretive nature. Each year the towpath attracts its share of people pedaling or hiking it from beginning to end, and Markey provides information to those en route to Georgetown.

“Through-hikers and through-bikers typically have more requests than other users,” said Markey. “They want to know about places they can eat, sleep, or camp further down the path.”