Bill Thomas was riding at a full trot May 17 when a girl, perhaps 6, stepped away from her family into the middle of the towpath, peered up and addressed him on behalf of the cadre of siblings she had left behind:
"Can we pet your horse?"
Thomas not only obliged but suggested that they pose together for a photo. Earlier he had chatted with two men about the new boardwalks at Widewater and talked about outdoor education with a woman form the Alice Ferguson Foundation.
Thomas, who retires from the United States Park Police this week after 36 years — 26 of them as a full-time mounted officer in the C&O Canal National Historical Park — poses for photographs with his horse Bravo and gives directions all the time.
Less often, he has experiences like this one:
"I had his family approach me on the towpath a few years ago. [The man] said, ‘You don’t remember me, do you?’ … He said, ‘You took me out of the river about 20 years ago.’ And he had his wife and kids with him. That was a pretty good feeling there."
"THIS IS [Thomas'] park," said Mark Schuette, a Park Police officer for 17 years, who joined Thomas on the Canal beat eight years ago. "He’s been in an area for so long that he’s made it his home. He cares about it to a degree that I’ve never seen another officer care about his area."
"When something goes down, since he’s the expert out here, he knows the quickest way in, he knows the quickest way to get somebody out," said Schuette, who was interviewed while riding on the canal with a younger officer. "When we started working together I was still very new [to the mounted unit]. I looked up to him as like a father. You can’t live up to this guy."
Thomas, 60, is a sturdy man with white hair. He is talkative but deliberate in his choice of words.
"Over the years we’ve made a difference out here," he said. "I don’t want to sound like the lone ranger or anything, but that’s just how it is."
He means the drownings, which have steadily declined during his tenure. Last summer, for the first time in three decades, there were no accidental drownings involving park visitors.
"The most gratifying feeling was last summer, possibly my last summer here, when we didn’t have those fatalities. That was a nice gift," he said. "It’s a good feeling when you get these kids out of here and you do contact their parents. It’s a message of ‘come and get them’ rather than ‘we lost them.’"
Getting kids out of the water — often groups of high school and college students who come in summer with coolers of alcohol — is the biggest part of Thomas’s job, or at least the part he talks about the most.
In the early 1990s, he wrestled a nickel-plated Beretta from an elderly citizen who was contemplating suicide. In 1993, he investigated a rape. Then there are the thefts from parked cars and the occasional indecent exposure.
But it is the river that looms largest. Thomas knows each bend — the catfish hole, Spitzbergen, Sandy Landing. Groups have used the same swimming spots for decades.
Thomas guesses that he prevented two fatalities last summer. It’s difficult to count. The Park Police’s helicopter crew and the Cabin John Park Volunteer Fire Department’s swift water rescue team deserve a lot of the credit, of course. But Thomas is often first on the scene, with radio and throw-rope.
And it is Thomas who whisks away would-be violators before they need the help of helicopters and boats. He can pick them out with virtual certainty. One does not hike the Billy Goat Trail in flip flops, he said.
"The person that wants to come out here to break the law, my job is to frustrate them. I’ll try to frustrate you to the point where they don’t want to come back and do it," Thomas said. "Now if you want to come in and have a nice day, then that’s great. Bravo and I will greet you and we’ll assist your day in any way we can. But if you come in here to break the law, then we’re going to, basically we’re going to have to remove you from the area."
BRAVO IS Thomas’ partner of 14 years, a black thoroughbred with just a bit of attitude. The pair begins and ends its days together at stables in Southeast Washington, D.C. (The Park Police gave up stables in Glen Echo in 1996 and abandoned plans to open new ones at Carderock — a minor peeve for Thomas.)
"He’s just an excellent horseman," said Schuette. "Watching him work — it’s pretty incredible. I’m an 8-year guy and I can try some of his stuff but it just doesn’t work the way it does for him."
Schuette pointed to the fact that Bravo is a thoroughbred — a type of horse whose trust is difficult to gain — and that Thomas is able to rope Bravo to trees and leave him, which requires mutual trust.
That's not necessary often, though.
"He can do anything on top of a horse," Schuette said. "He’s 60 years old and he can ride these animals like nobody else in our unit."
The horses serve a dual purpose. Thomas covers the canal from Georgetown to Seneca and horses are still the best way to move around quickly and on terrain that even noisy off-road vehicles cannot handle.
But they are also an outreach mechanism. (Thomas’ last horse, for 14 years, was called Royal Spokesman.) The visitors who come to pet Bravo are Thomas’ eyes and ears.
"We have a lot of public contact. People just generally come up to you and talk to you on a daily basis. … They actually tell you things, if there’s something going on that they think is wrong or illegal," Thomas said. "One minute you’re giving directions and talking about the horse and the next minute you’re involved in possibly a rescue situation or a violator."
THOMAS GREW UP in Washington, DC and served in the U.S. military police in the 1960s, stationed in Germany, where he learned to ride horses.
He joined the Park Police in 1970 and began covering the canal in 1976.
"I kind of found my niche," he said.
His retirement this summer is mandatory and Thomas is adamant that, physically, he could stay on another 10 years. He couldn’t overcome the bureaucracy, not even to stay on for the rest of the summer.
But waking up to coffee and a newspaper will be good, he said. He isn’t too focused on what he’ll do next. Maybe he’ll continue in the Park Service, he said. Or maybe he’ll find a way to use his degrees.
Thomas picked up a bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology in 1985, attending George Washington University at night. In 1993, he got a master’s in education and human development the same way.
"I got it because I was able to get it and it seemed like a good thing to do at the time. But there was no way it was going to take me off the horse," Thomas said. "I stayed on this thing until I absolutely had to leave."
Schuette said that Thomas leaves a legacy of professionalism
"When the end of the day comes, it's not the end of the day because his shift ends, it’s the end of the day because he feels it's okay to leave his beat," Schuette said. "The loss for the area is so strong. ... There’s no way you can replace Officer Thomas. We know that."