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Mother's Love Helps Eagle Earn his Wings

By Kyle Wingfield

Off the only road north from Jackson, Wyoming, to the Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks, a pullover area and a wooden platform overlook Flat Creek and the National Elk Refuge. It is a welcome respite from the miles of wire fence that can interfere with the perfect photograph of the refuge, Sleeping Indian Mountain, and the Wyoming hillside.

It also is a monument to the brotherhood of Scouting and, more specifically, to the bond between two Eagle Scouts who grew up a continent apart and never met each other, but had a profound effect on each other's lives and on their families. Measuring 28 by 16 feet and adorned only by two simple benches, the Flat Creek Wildlife Observation Deck reaches out not only toward the elk-inhabited grasslands, but between a grieving mother and a humble Scout.

Chris Werk went to Jackson to indulge his love for high-adventure sports and the outdoors—a love he discovered through Scouting, said his mother, Missie Pierce. "When Chris first decided he was really going to go for the Eagle, we went out to Jackson for a couple of weeks" for a family vacation at the Spotted Horse Ranch, Mrs. Pierce said. "And the owner told him if he ever made Eagle, he wouldn't have to fill out an application, just tell him when to meet the plane."

Chris achieved the Eagle Scout rank at age 15, and ranch owner Dick Bess made good on his word, hiring Chris as a wrangler the next summer. Chris fell in love with the Tetons, and he returned to Jackson in December 1999 after graduating from the University of Georgia.

In late 2000, Chris mentioned to his family that he planned to become involved with a Scout troop back in Jackson. Each May, members of Troop 66 of the Grand Teton Council gather antlers from the National Elk Refuge and hold an auction, selling between 1,500 and 9,000 pounds of antlers to craftsmen and collectors. The proceeds go to buy alfalfa pellets and feeding equipment for the refuge, and to fund the troop's activities and community service projects. The Scouts are the only group with permission to collect the antlers, and Chris was looking forward to helping them out. "He told us then (in Hawaii), 'I'm going to give back to Scouting,'" Mrs. Pierce remembers.

A week later, on December 2, Chris' snowmobile hit a barely covered rock and crashed. Chris and friend Kevin McDougal were killed.

Several months after the accident, Mrs. Pierce contacted the Grand Tetons Council with an offer: She would finance an aspiring Eagle Scout's community service project on one condition—that the project be some sort of memorial to Chris and Kevin in Jackson. The council directed her to L. J. Wilde.

L. J. had long wanted to become an Eagle, having watched for years as older Scouts achieved that goal. By the summer of 2001, he was 17 and on the cusp of achieving it himself. But he needed a community service project. "I wanted to build something," L. J. recalls. "I didn't know what for, what it would be, but I wanted to build something for my Eagle project."

He had heard about Chris's death. The story was covered in the local newspaper, and the fact that it was a "clean accident"—involving no drugs or alcohol—shook up the town. Mrs. Pierce's phone call about helping him with his project touched him.

"That meant a lot to me, when Missie told me that if she was going to have something built in memory of him, it was going to be an Eagle Scout project," L. J. says. "I wanted to make it something special for her son."

Working to gain approval for the project, L. J. learned a side lesson in bureaucracy. The refuge had to approve his idea; the State of Wyoming Department of Transportation had a right-of-way on the land he wanted to use; government officials had to inspect his design to ensure it would be sturdy enough for the public to use. Eventually—and mostly enthusiastically—they all cooperated.

A lumber store gave L. J. a discount and a local craftsman agreed to engrave Chris's and Kevin's names on the two benches for free. Mrs. Pierce paid for the rest. "She funded all of it," L. J. says. "That project really isn't anything without her. It wouldn't be here."

Mrs. Pierce and eight of Chris's friends from Atlanta, Georgia, joined L. J.'s troop members in Jackson in April 2002 for the platform construction. Under L. J.'s leadership, the crew worked more than 800 hours to complete the project. "We were out there at dawn, and they'd turn on the headlights and we'd work in the headlights," Mrs. Pierce recalls.

When L. J. received his Eagle Scout award and dedicated the platform later that year, Mrs. Pierce returned for the festivities. And L. J. was glad to see his project partner again. "To be able to do something like that in memory of someone means a lot to me," he says. "It helps me to remember that you can always help other people out."