- Associated Press - Sunday, March 16, 2014

FAIRBANKS, Alaska (AP) - At age 50, some people start to think about retirement.

When Richard David was 50 he graduated from the University of Alaska Fairbanks with a degree in civil engineering.

David, now 57, works for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Alaska District’s Northern Area Office, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner (https://bit.ly/1hcVkNT) reported.

Originally from Allakaket, a village of 100 people on the Koyukuk River, David’s Koyukon Athabascan heritage, intimate knowledge of rural Alaska, and construction and engineering experience proved invaluable while assisting the spring floods that ravaged Galena last year.

In 1984, David was helping his cousin build a cabin in Tanana when he met his wife, Lorraine, who describes Richard as, “Really good at figuring things out. My granddaughter used to say, ‘Give it to grandpa, he fixes anything.’”

After the two moved to Fairbanks, David worked as a carpenter and roughneck. While attending a survey technician class in Seattle, a recruiter from the University of Washington recommended he take civil engineering classes. It wasn’t until more than a decade later, in 2001, when faced with declining work in the oil fields, that David pursued a degree.

Paul Schneider, assistant area engineer at the Northern Area Office, believes David’s industry experience before college was a big boon.

“He had his experience first and then goes into the engineering field with that knowledge, I think that helps a person put the engineering curriculum into context,” Schneider said. “You can’t get that in a classroom.”

Now David divides his time between trapping beaver, hunting, fishing, his grandchildren and basketball. He attends every high school and college game possible, and coaches a team of 5- to 7-year olds.

David’s team of “little dribblers” provided an unexpected opportunity to learn a new skill. David practices sign language 30 minutes every day to better communicate with two hearing-impaired children on his team.

“The main sign is ‘stop,’” David said at practice, wearing his white Army Corps of Engineers polo while demonstrating a chopping motion of one hand onto the other.


To help pay for college, David sold dogsleds he built from birch. He speaks quietly but directly while explaining motivations.

“It started out for necessity: I needed a sled so I built one. In college, I needed money. Now it’s more of an art and a challenge,” David said. He estimates in college he built almost 10 baby sleds per semester.

David was able to use his engineering experience to lighten his sleds. He tested the tensile strength of birch and could make some pieces 50 percent lighter by lowering it from 10,000 pounds-per-square-inch to 6,000 psi.

As a child David watched his dad build dog sleds, and made his first one when he was about 14. They lacked power tools and the labor took four times longer.

“You had to be pretty strong to do it, pretty concentrated,” David recalled.

Now it takes two weeks to cut and shape the wood, but David insists the first step is the most important: choose a tree with straight grain. The wood cures for a year, then it’s split in half and squared up. The wood can then be cut into any of the pieces needed.

David works outside with various splitting mauls, wedges, a chain saw, power and hand planers and multiple wood-bending forms. Evidence of many mistrials surround his work bench, mostly split and cracked wood due to crooked grain.

“The hardest part is bending the frame,” David said, pointing to a 180-degree arc at the front of the sled.

The wood is steamed then tightened against one of the forms David has made. To determine when the wood is properly bent, David relies on hearing, waiting until it sounds like a rope under high tension.

At his home on Chena Ridge Road, a piece of dried salmon skin, an Athabascan good luck charm for anything new, is tied to an almost finished sled.


Building dogsleds is part of David’s Native heritage, and can be traced back four generations. He said it connects him to his ancestors, and he admires their ability to build without modern tools.

His cultural background allowed him to better communicate with people affected by floods in rural villages. He says it’s important to visit the village elders first, learn the village background and how to act.

During a 1994 flood in Allakaket, David estimated 85 percent of homes were washed downriver, including his own. His work for a construction company in Allakaket prepared him to be an overseer during the 2013 flood in Galena.

David spent 54 days in Galena following the flood making structural inspections to determine if houses were salvageable.

“When I first went down there, there were a lot of out-of-state workers that didn’t know anything about the Arctic. Didn’t know about the necessity of sealing up the vapor barrier,” David said.

While in Galena, David took time and spoke to high school classes about his work, the most common question was how he chose engineering, to which David credits adroit mathematics.


Life in Alaska is not always safe or easy, and David tries to teach others from his tribulations.

He has struggled with alcohol and fought “multiple demons.” One of the worst was during a suicide epidemic in the villages.

“Something weird was going on that affected all the young men. That’s when my uncle pulled me aside and told me to get out of there,” David recalled.

Another motive for moving to Fairbanks was having his snowmachine break down at a trapping camp. He was forced to walk about 50 miles in minus 60 degree temperatures to get back.

Many youths now ask David how to prepare for life outside villages. His advice could apply to anyone trying to navigate between adolescence and adulthood.

“Just try to remain straight and focus on the purpose that you’re giving into. Pursue ‘something,’ don’t pursue ‘one thing,’” he said. “Put a lot of applications out and keep your options open. If you have a chance, take training to better yourself ahead of time.”


Information from: Fairbanks (Alaska) Daily News-Miner, https://www.newsminer.com

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