Lum: Alaska tales untold

Su Lum

Every now and then, I run into people who tell me they miss my columns about my homesteading days in Alaska.

Alaska columns are increasingly few and far between because, in the 25 years of the column, I’ve just about covered all the entertaining events that occurred during those three years that seemed like a lifetime — washing diapers in melted snow, making homebrew, skinning out a moose with a single-edge razor blade, camping out at 30 below.

Here’s one I’m pretty sure I didn’t write, which is still crystal-clear 52 years later.

It is January or February, and I am sitting in our Dodge Powerwagon with my daughter Skye, who is 5 or 6 months old. It is dark — it is always dark in Alaska unless it’s high summer — and Burt has stopped to pick up or deliver something at the trailer of our nearest neighbor, some 3 miles from our homestead.

But of course he doesn’t just run in and do the transaction and return. He assures me he will, but I know he’s having “just one” cup of coffee. With Skye all bundled up on my lap, I’m not in any position to scramble out of the high-riding Powerwagon to get him and am not at all sure he would comply if I did.

I was pissed off and cold.

Then, all of a sudden, I started dying.

When I was in seventh grade, I came down with pneumonia: One second I was feeling fine, and the next second I had a raging fever. This was like that insofar as the speed of it was concerned, but it didn’t feel at all like pneumonia (chills, fever); it just felt like death.

The primary symptom of this phenomenon was fear. Dread would be a better word for it — unfathomable dread. My heart was racing so hard it would surely have been visible pounding under my parka, even in the dark.

All of the strength oozed out of my body as if I had been attacked by a dozen evil acupuncturists with lethal intent. I would have thought I would faint if I hadn’t known I was dying.

I couldn’t breathe.

I had never been so terrified in my life. Terrified, it turned out, about nothing. I had just experienced my first anxiety attack.

Of course back then (this would have been early 1963), nobody knew a thing about anxiety attacks. We were familiar with cabin fever (“Moose stew again?” Blam, between the eyes!), but we didn’t know squat about anything like this.

We went to the doctor in Palmer, who probably had seen hundreds of cases like mine but didn’t have the energy or wisdom to explain it. He just gave me a prescription for what I presume were tranquilizers. I was so ignorant, I didn’t even think about asking if those pills were OK for nursing mothers.

The pills didn’t help. Anxiety attacks lurked like assassins behind every corner. I might wake up feeling that the witch was dead only to be felled later while stirring a pudding on the stove, feel that dreaded engine bearing down on me without warning or mercy. It was so physical, I wondered (wished) that it was caused by gases from the propane stove or the logs in our wood furnace.

The condition gradually abated with relocation (homestead to Anchorage, Anchorage to Aspen), a three-year process, and eventual divorce. But, like a recovering alcoholic, I would never dare think “cured.” That cursed thing is, at best, at bay.

So when people ask, “Don’t you miss Alaska?” and “Do you think you’ll ever go back?” my reply is vehemently negative.

But there were a helluva lot of funny stories mixed in, like the time the trailer almost fell over and soot from the wood-stove chimney was all over everything, topped neatly with the contents of a 5-pound can of Karo syrup.

Su Lum is a longtime local who escaped. Her column appears every Wednesday in The Aspen Times. Reach her at