The dark side of a US couple’s wilderness dream

Burt and Su’s marriage could not stand the strain, and following the divorce Skye didn’t see her mother again until she was eight years old. In 1970, Su was granted visitation rights, which meant Skye spent her summers in Aspen and her sister Hillery made the trip up north to Alaska.

“I don’t want this to just seem so incredibly dark, but it was a hard life and we were really broke all the time. Every once in a while, my dad would get a teaching gig, and we’d get back up on our feet. We had food stamps and we had to get a moose just to live through the winter.”

Skye says she hasn’t recently eaten moose but it is tasty. However, she does have a culinary tip for anyone considering the wilderness life.

“Bear is not good. Don’t eat bear – super oily pungent meat… ugh,” she laughs.

Skye says her father’s plans to build a five-storey A-frame house were overambitious.

“I’ve often thought, if he could have just built a two-room cabin, we would have been so much more comfortable sooner,” she says.

Burt Lum died in a car accident when Skye was aged 16. Su Lum died aged 80 in 2017

In 2000, Skye returned to visit the old homestead for one last time. “It was important for me to go back out to the land and walk the road,” she says. “I kind of was saying goodbye to it because I knew I was never going to live there again. I needed to let go of the hard part but I also wanted to say goodbye to all the good parts.”

Shortly after her visit, the entire area burned to the ground in a huge forest fire. “I’m quite sure it would be unrecognisable to me now – all the structures that were there and the shell of a unicorn house that my dad was trying to build. I don’t know how to describe it, but there was something mythic about the whole thing.”

Additional research and reporting by Francis Agustin.

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