AYER -- The journey to become an Eagle Scout is an arduous one, traveled mostly in solitude, with many stops along the trail.
Robert Houde recently finished that journey and in doing so, helped his community.
Houde's final project was to design, build and install a footbridge over a stream that interrupts the path through the woods behind the high school. The "service project" was the culmination of years of scouting and the honor of Eagle rank is a rare one, only about 50,000 per year are awarded nationally. After earning the requisite 21 merit badges, Houde approached his troop leader about a service project.
"You know, it is a rare honor to receive the rank of Eagle," said the 17-year-old Houde, who also plays soccer, is on the Ayer Shirley Regional High School robotics team and is an elected secretary for the Student Council, "but there are actually eight Eagle Scouts in this year's graduating class."
The 20-foot long wooden bridge was a community effort and allows walkers, joggers and bikers to avoid the water and navigate the terrain without stepping in the creek, which in springtime runs deep and swift and in the summer lays tepid with mud.
Members of the town's Conservation Commission helped Houde with procuring the materials, assembling the 4-foot wide structure made from pressure treated 2-by-8 and 6-foot wide decking.
About a half-mile into the forest from Groton Harvard Road, Houde's bridge is far more than meets the eye.
"Any time someone proposes doing work near a wetland, they need to get a permit from the state," said Jo-Anne Crystoff, Conservation Commission administrator. "The workings of a governmental agency are very difficult even for an adult to understand, let alone a teenager. But young Robert did everything we asked of him, including sitting in on meetings and providing detailed drawings.
Crystoff said that Houde first started the work without a permit. But he did not give up, even after he was forced to disassemble that initial undertaking, shelving it until the permitting process played out. By late autumn, Houde's bridge was spanning the nameless creek in the Pine Meadow Conservation Area. An official launching, with a small ceremony, was held Jan. 26.
Houde even purchased the materials himself from money earned in fundraisers leading up to the construction. He first conceived the idea when his own annoyance at having to carry his bike across the stream reached a crescendo. He cut most of the pieces off-site then enlisted a slew of volunteers to tote the lumber over the hilly terrain and craggy alleyways of the winding path.
The senior, whose father Scott is a selectman, will attend Mass Maritime Academy in the fall, where he intends to study marine engineering. He also developed some entrepreneurial skills along the journey; using a go-fund me page and private donations to fund the $1,000 project.