David Christopher Pundyk was born on Dec. 23, 1983, two and a half weeks late. His parents, John and Brenda, were both teachers on the Fisher River Cree Nation, 200 km north of Winnipeg, but David’s apparent unwillingness to emerge brought them to the city for his birth. Upon arrival, David, whose mother was Cree, had a shock of black hair that resembled Ronald Reagan’s pompadour, earning him the nickname “Little Ronnie.” A shy boy, he was “attached to his mummy’s side,” says John, which older brother Mike teased him about.
Dave, as he was often called, grew up spending summers at the family cottage. Located on the Winnipeg River near the town of Minaki, Ont.,, it wasn’t accessible by road. The family motored across the water in a fishing boat to get there. As soon as he could hold the tiller, Dave sat in John’s lap and learned to steer. Fishing was “part of them,” says John of the boys, who particularly enjoyed catching colourful pumpkinseed fish. Dave and friend Dan Polakoff, whose family had a cottage nearby, would attach a small motor to their canoe. “We probably could paddle faster, but we liked being the big kids in the boat,” says Dan. Unbeknownst to their parents, they would often have double suppers, convincing one family to eat early, and arriving for the second meal “just as the table was being set,” says Dan.
By the time Dave started school, the family had moved to Winnipeg. Academics were a struggle, but his parents helped him with the material, and read to him often. His favourite book was The Muskie Hook, about a boy who goes fishing. He didn’t take to hockey or soccer; it was volleyball that finally coaxed him out of his shell. Superior hand-eye coordination made him a natural on the court. As he improved, says John, “We saw him grow in confidence.”
At the cottage, Dave often occupied himself with the contents of John’s toolbox. One summer, he decided that Dan’s tree house required walls. But the project was a bit ambitious; when they leaned on the boards they’d nailed in, says Dan, “We went flying out of the trees.” Dave, however, remained undeterred. By the end of high school, his creations, which included an oak coffee table with an inlaid chess board, were “store quality,” says John.
From a young age, Dave worked on fishing boats, first as a gofer for the guides in Minaki, and eventually as a guide himself. The long days on the water required “an ability to connect with people,” says Mike, and as Dave grew up, he became “extremely good at that.” To his tight-knit group of buddies, he was a bit of a “goofball,” who could be counted on to break out fist-pumping dance moves and sing along to his favourite Neil Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd songs, says friend Kelly Smith.
Though he had planned to pursue carpentry, when Dave heard about a joint Red River College-University of Winnipeg program in industrial arts and education, he applied—and got in. As a student teacher, he wasn’t much older than the high school kids, but his imposing stature (he grew to six foot four), gentle demeanour and easy smile won them over. When Red River restarted its volleyball program, Dave became captain and a league all-star.
In summer 2006, while guiding in Great Slave Lake, N.W.T., Dave set his sights on Chelsea Solmundson, who was also from Winnipeg. “He just wouldn’t leave me alone,” she says. She soon fell for his easygoing nature. In public, they teased each other relentlessly, but when they were alone, Dave was “such an affectionate person,” she says. A volleyball player herself, she says they joked that their kids would have “ridiculous limbs.” They planned to move in together this year, and someday build their own cottage on Dave’s family’s property.
Before graduation, Dave did a stint in Fisher River, filling in for the industrial arts teacher. In 2007, he got a position at Sisler high school in Winnipeg. The job wasn’t ideal; he was mostly teaching social studies, and he longed for his own shop. So when a full-time industrial arts position opened up at another high school, he applied. In May, he found out he got it. “He was just so pumped,” says Chelsea.
When the school year ended, Dave went up to the cottage with his parents, content to while away the summer on the water. In the wee hours of July 18, he was at a birthday party at a nearby cottage. At about 3:30 a.m., as he left with a few friends, his motor stalled. Another boat, which had been travelling ahead of his, circled back. But it was dark, and when Dave restarted his motor, the two collided, throwing him into the water. It took rescue workers a week to find Dave’s body. He was 25.