Sue Aikens captured the hearts of viewers of “Life Below Zero”, as she chose to live on her own terms in the Alaskan wilderness. Alone, she manages the Kavik River Camp located over 300kms north of the Arctic Circle. Having bears as neighbors, it was said that an encounter with one was inevitable. True enough, she had a harrowing experience with one that left her seriously injured. Many were intrigued that she survived to tell the tale.
Meet Sue Aikens
Sue Aikens was born in 1963, in Mount Prospect, Chicago, Illinois. She was 12 when her mom left her dad and took her to a small town north of Fairbanks, Alaska, only to abandon her afterwards. Instead of dwelling on why her mother did that, she chose to accept the reality of her situation, and figured out how to live on her own. Fortunately for her, an old resident took pity on her, and gave her a rifle and bullets after telling her that she had to learn how to hunt to survive. She matriculated from high school, having learned how to fly a plane at 13, later saying that back then in Alaska, one could do that at such a young age. Over the years, she acquired skills and wisdom in overcoming adversities that fate threw her way. She had two children with her husband of 17 years; the couple remained friends after going their separate ways. In an interview in 2019, she said that her mother is still alive and in her 80s, while her children are in their 30s, with kids of their own.
Being silly and working out before catching the bush plane in. Gotta stay Round 🥰😁 pic.twitter.com/se2rsrevd3
— Sue Aikens (@SueAikens) November 19, 2019
Her Kavik River Camp
Sue craved isolation; she might love interacting with people and hearing their stories, but only for a limited time. She was averse to living in the city, and the games that people play in society, and so had a passion for the Arctic and the wilderness, founding the Kavik River Camp to be an ideal place for her. It was over 800km away from the nearest city, Fairbanks, and around 130km West from a road. Her address was a GPS coordinate: 146.54 West by 69.4 North.
The former owners were her friends, and they wanted someone to watch and manage the camp. At that time, she ran a trapline along the Jim River, and so they asked her if she could do it. She said that as long as she could bring her dogs and stay there year-round, she was willing to go there. The site was an old oil exploration camp, and was in a dismal state when she arrived. She had second thoughts about living there, but took on the challenge of putting it to rights.
Before long, she was the one leasing the camp; she was in her 30s then, and transformed the site into some sort of bed & breakfast for scientific researchers, photographers, hunters and eco-tourists, and provided them with logistical support from June to September. It also served as a refilling and search and rescue station. The Kavik River Camp had a 1.25-mile-long airstrip, fuel shed, trailers and outhouses. There was an internet connection so she could conduct her business, and contact her loved ones.
Alone for most of the year, she didn’t feel lonely as she said that she liked herself and found herself hilarious. She didn’t reveal how much money she was making, but did say that while it certainly wouldn’t make her a millionaire, it was allowing her to live the life that she wanted.
Her home away from home
The camp was 19km from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s eastern border. Sue might own the business and the structures at the camp, but she didn’t own the land. She said that her lease had been taken away by the state and was to be auctioned off, so she was only given a temporary permit. Competing with big corporations in a bidding war, it was likely that she would lose. In preparation for that, she bought a property that had two cabins, one old and one new, in Chena Hot Springs, Alaska. It was closer to town than she would have wanted, but it didn’t mean that she wouldn’t be happy living there. Through the years, she worked hard to make it her own, and stays there from time to time, but Kavik is still her home.
Background on “Life Below Zero”
National Geographic first aired the reality television series, “Life Below Zero,” in 2013, which documented the day-to-day struggles and triumphs of individuals living in the remote Alaskan Wilderness. While beautiful, the nature of the landscapes of Alaska was also unforgiving and could be deadly. Each day was a matter of survival, and only a determined few thrived there.
Sue Aikens in “Life Below Zero”
Prior to starring in the hit National Geographic series, Sue Aikens appeared on TV shows although not as a cast member or a guest. She had been in an episode of “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” in 2010, because Kavik River Camp served as the base camp for a hunting party in the show. The following year, she was in a few episodes of Discovery Channel’s “Flying Wild Alaska” when her airstrip was used by a pilot looking for a landing strip in the area. One of the executive producers, Tommy Baynard, became Sue’s friend. He was intrigued by her unusual lifestyle, so when the show was being conceptualized, he asked her if she would consider being part of it. She valued her privacy, but agreed to do the show because the producers were respectful of her, and didn’t try to change her – what made Sue ‘perfect’ for a reality show was her personality. Joe Litzinger, one of the show’s executive producers, said that Sue was quite vocal about her feelings and inner conflicts.
Right from the beginning, viewers realized the level of isolation and risks involved in Sue’s job. For the first episode, she was in Fairbanks preparing for her return to the Kavik River Camp. It had been several months since she had last seen the place, as she was recovering from surgery to repair her broken bone after she had a bad fall in 2011. It was 40 degrees below zero when the plane landed at the airstrip. She armed herself with a rifle as she walked towards her home and inspected the whole place. She also had a shovel with her to clear the way of snow. As the camp was left unattended for quite some time, she discovered that most of her fuel supply was stolen, so had barrels of fuel delivered as soon as possible.
Living at Kavik, one had to have the means to keep warm and to prepare for the worst in case of a storm. She used ropes as a way to get from one place to another when there was zero visibility. One time, the weather was so bad that the plane couldn’t get close, and dropped off 900lbs of supplies and gear by the perimeter. Sue had to move all that through the frozen ground with a pack of wolves hovering nearby. She divided the load into 20-pound packs that she could throw as far as she could, and then did it again and again until she reached the camp.
No matter the struggles, this was the life that she chose, as she said, ‘I love the life that I lead. There’s some twisted part of me that thinks that this is pretty freaking cool.’
Living in bear territory
Kavik River Camp was right in the middle of grizzly bear territory, so there was a constant threat of an attack by these lethal creatures especially when provoked. Back in 2014, she said that at least 80 bears lived within 10 miles of the camp, that were being monitored. Part of her routine each day was to check for animal tracks in the surrounding area. She would also go up on the roof of a trailer, and with a pair of binoculars, would scan the horizon to see if there was any bear or wolverine near her camp; if so, Sue would fire some rounds to scare them away.
Encounters with the Grizzlies
The first time she landed on Kavik, a bear came out of the fog at the runway and swung at her, but she somehow got to safety. Bears had an incredible sense of smell, and so she was careful with how she stored her food and burned the garbage. However, there must have been a lingering smell that attracted bears to come to her place. One time, as she was sleeping in her quarters, a bear crashed through the wall of her tent. She moved quickly to put some distance between them, and grabbed her rifle. She shot it, causing it to run away; come morning, she found its ear. Since then, Sue made sure that her handgun was within reach of her bed and she had baseball bats stashed in several places. It didn’t mean that she lived in fear of them, but she respected their ability to sneak up on her.
Sue Aikens is going live here tonight at 9/8c to answer questions about the upcoming #LifeBelowZero season and the new series, Life Below Zero: Next Generation!
2007 Bear Attack – How did she survive?
She might have escaped her few encounters with bears, but there was one time that she was left at the mercy of one. In 2007, she noticed a juvenile male bear that continually buried its kills on her helipad every night. She called it an ‘alpha push’, as the bear tried to mark her place as its territory. Naturally, she dug up the caribou carcasses by morning and burned them, but believed that’s what enraged the bear.
One day, she went to the river to get water before it totally froze over. She had to use a water pump, and as she needed two hands for this task, she put down her rifle – some might say that she had gotten careless or wasn’t paying attention that time. She said that she did check her surrounding but the bear must have been hiding near the river bank where she couldn’t see it. Before she knew it, the bear attacked her and dragged her into the tundra somewhere between the river and the dining hall. She felt the bear’s teeth penetrate her skull as its jaws were locked onto her head and throat. As she was being mauled and thrown around, she played dead in the hope that the bear would soon leave her alone and that she didn’t bleed out; she wouldn’t have stood a chance had it been an adult grizzly or a black bear, and if that were the case, one shouldn’t play dead but fight back with everything that one had.
The bear bluff charged her many times before retreating and going back to the river bank. She escaped its clutches, but knew that she was just given a reprieve, and that she had to make her way to the safety of the dining hall. One could only imagine how she got there considering she was in pretty bad shape, with her head torn and her hips out of their sockets. The first thing she did was to clean her wounds to prevent them from becoming infected, and then stitched them up. She called for help from the troopers, but all she got was their answering machine; she tried other people, but wasn’t able to contact them either.
Sue knew she had to deal with the juvenile bear herself, because unless she left the area, it would come back to assert its claim to the territory. She cinched a gun belt tight to support her hips and grabbed another rifle. From past experience, she knew where the bear was headed, so went there and shot it. Her hips gave out on the way back to the dining hall, so she slowly dragged herself to get inside.
For some reason, it took 10 days before anyone showed up. The whole time she was just lying there, waiting. It was terrifying at night when she could hear the sounds of a bear feasting on another animal, and knowing it was only a tent that separated her from that; she was thinking that a bear could barge in at any moment and have her for its next meal. She said that as she was giving off an odor from being unable to get to a restroom as well as whimpering in pain, she was sure that a bear was aware that she was right there. Help finally came as a pilot friend found her and took her to Fairbanks to receive treatment. She had hip surgery and made a full recovery.
Many compared her experience with that of Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, a frontiersman, in the 2015 action-drama movie “The Revenant” in which he survived being mauled by a bear and left for dead. Sue’s friends had seen it, and told her not to look at that brutal bear attack scene. She said that she didn’t want to watch it as she was someone who would want to move on.
Facing her fears
What Sue experienced was quite traumatic, and many wondered how she coped with that, considering she continued to live with bears as her neighbors, but her fervor for living in the wilderness hadn’t diminished; she wasn’t someone who would hunt or kill just because she was afraid. That said, there were things she had to do to protect herself from animals encroaching on her territory. When a bear got too close to her camp, she had to take care of it before it became a serious threat.
Actively pursuing a bear was a big deal for her; it would only take a few seconds for a predator to become prey, so she had to act fast, especially if one spotted her while she was hunting it. A grizzly could run as fast as 56km/hour according to the National Wildlife Federation, so outrunning one was quite impossible. The first shot was going to make a bear mad so she had to make it count. She hit it twice and was quite shaken afterward. She approached the bear slowly and poked it with the end of her rifle in case it was still alive and only injured. The bear wouldn’t go to waste as she’d use the fur for warmth, and meat for food.
Sue was proud of overcoming her fears, especially as the bear was moving closer to where she was. She said she did this to protect the camp and herself; she wanted her grandkids to still be able to come and visit her. This face-off with a grizzly was just one ‘skirmish’ in what she said was the battle on the Arctic.
In living in a remote place with below-zero temperatures and wild animals abound, Sue said she had to be comfortable with her own death; she’s not seeking it, but isn’t afraid to face it either – everyone has an expiration date, but just doesn’t know when or how it is going to happen. Also, it might take some time before help could arrive, especially during winter. As to whether she planned to stay there forever or retire somewhere else, she said that in having a raven personality, there might come a time when she would be unable to resist something ‘shiny’ on the horizon, and check it out. Until then, she was happy with her life.