On the heels of three recent Emmy nominations, National Geographic’s multi-Emmy winning series Life Below Zero finally returns on September 6.
Life Below Zero is not the nonsensical high drama of another Alaskan reality series with oddball family members, but a true sense of what life is like when you balls it out and go it alone in a place that would easily kill you.
The series captures the extreme lifestyles of individuals living off the grid in Alaska’s brutal wilderness, fighting for survival in one of the most remote regions in the world.
And cast member Sue Aikens is the “OG,” the original and a grandmother to boot, who can field dress a moose and insert an IV into her arm to stave off what would kill anyone else when an accident happens. And in Monsters & Critics‘ frank conversation with her, we learn she even has a guardian wolf looking after her, repaying a kindness.
The mother of two and grandmother is circling close to being 60 years of age, and she tells us that she is beginning to feel it. Yet, despite this, Sue is competent and able “to do” for herself, make and improvise on the fly and do it with style.
National Geographic’s Life Below Zero is nonfiction reality TV when it shines and does not embellish ludicrous storylines. Instead, the series is a snapshot of six Alaskans living off the grid with the lowest population density in the United States.
And Sue lives in the most remote section of the state, over 500 miles from the nearest town. And as you will read in the interview below, her Kavik camp is still at risk of being auctioned right out from under her by the state of Alaska. And with 80+ grizzly bears as her neighbors, she is truly on her own when the weather goes to the extremes.
Sue is just one person who makes up the cast of Life Below Zero. The series also follows the lives of Ricko DeWilde, Chip and Agnes Hailstone, Andy Bassich, and Jessie Holmes.
Life Below Zero has been nominated for 14 Emmys and won five times. The show resonates because it is unvarnished and shows people who understand what they are up against and act like grownups in the face of danger.
Exclusive interview with Sue Aikens
Monsters & Critics: You have snow already in Kavik?
Sue Aikens: Yes, and over the whole next week, I’m [the Kavik weather] supposed to get down to 28 degrees and clobbered with snow. It’s been three, four weeks since my planes have delivered any fruit or vegetables. Everything’s just been shot to heck.
So I’ve tried. I need to get a few things in, but I have a poochie named Little Bawb, and he loves the snow, so he was stretching and being cute and acting like he was saying, ‘Okay, it’s time. To go out.’ And I sat him on the ground, and he was ‘it’s snow!’ He was so happy.
I get snow at least a little bit every month of the year, but yes, it will start. This [snow] won’t stick forever. It will go away. That’ll be an event off and on for probably three or four days, but we’re on the downhill slide.
The summer temperatures have been between 20 to 40 degrees. I had about three, four hot days in the eighties. And most of it’s been in the 40’s. So it’s just been a rotten summer—lots of rain. And down where the Chena cabin is located was very hot weather and fire danger. It was nail-biting. My daughter, my grandson, a couple of friends finally got through and removed things that I did not want to be burnt and a lot of fuel that I had delivered for winter.
The cabin is down the end of the Chino Hot Springs road and then out in the Bush a little bit. And, we had a big fire called the Munson fire, and it got within a hundred yards of the cabin. And, but everybody living in that little area there retired, there are a few other cabins that people use in the summer, a couple of miles away. And, but they’re retired firefighters. I put in a well two years ago. I’m the closest one to the river. So, tap into that son of a b***h and keep the water flowing.
M&C: When was the filming of this new season?
Sue Aikens: It is throughout the year. It’s like right now. I’ve got a film crew in that got in yesterday. So we’re doing just amazing. But that’ll be for another season. And I can tell you, I have worked, it’s something, and that’ll be for the next season, but that’s something that I’ve worked 30 years to do. So it’s monumental in a lot of ways. But how it works is they’ll call, and they’ll be like, ‘Hey, it’s March. Do you got anything going on? What are you doing?’
And, well, yeah, I’m going to do this and this and this. ‘Wow. That’s interesting. Would you mind if we film that?’ Some things I go, ‘Yeah, this, I actually, I mean, I have to get it done.’ Split-second timing. I don’t have time to get it from different angles or anything. I’ve got to get it, it’s bad weather, and I got to get it done immediately. But the other stuff, yeah, bring it, come on out, and we’ll do her.
M&C: Is this a new home or a new outbuilding or, are you expanding your living space in Kavic… I’m prying here.
Sue Aikens: [Laughs] There are new things that were built in Kavik. I can’t give away too much.
M&C: A Starbucks?
Sue Aikens: Oh man. Wouldn’t that be nice? I have every kind of coffee maker known to humanity. Espresso makers that you can use with electricity. I’ve got stovetop models. I mean, if I could get two squirrels to run and figure it out with a belt, I’d do it. There are some new buildings that went up for a very specific reason. There are things with the runway, things with the airplanes.
I’m still in this fight to try and keep the lease on the property. The state is determined to do a public outcry auction, determined that maybe they can get more money if they auction it off, hoping that the oil industry takes off on my side. So that’s going to be ongoing, probably for another couple of years. I’ve been fighting for six years.
M&C: What’s your legal recourse?
Sue Aikens: It is just long and involved but regardless, it’s like getting back to [doing] the show, just part of my life. So occasionally, you’ll hear me go ‘go**amn!’ I got to get this and this done because that’s part of what’s going on. I’ve got to keep it nice. I’ve got to do this.
I wanted to be a light housekeeper my whole life. This is really sort of a lighthouse. It is a place of safety. It is a beacon, so to speak, in the Tundra. And you see threaded through, as I work on things, as I do things, how I keep it, that. How do I try to do as much as I can do to keep it a haven? Keep the food coming in, keep this and that coming in, keep the electricity going, keep it all up to date.
Because when I got here, the trailers were [circa] 1968 to 1970, and the wiring was different. I’ve put a lot of time and effort into getting the upkeep. But I’m also kicking 60 right in the head. So there are things that I want to do. I’m looking at the ecosystem in the last two years with the pandemic. The clientele has taken a nosedive because who wants to go flying around when it’s difficult? You’ve got to strap up like you’re going into World War II to get anywhere. The prices are crazy.
But it has given me more free time to do other things. And so that’s one of the things you see is that flying has gone up, the price of bringing things in has gone up by $3, 25 cents a pound. So you’ll see, to get food, I build and create something which would help me produce more.
M&C: Did you make a greenhouse?
Sue Aikens: [Makes a chicken noise].
M&C: Oh, I got it. So how will they survive?
Sue Aikens: You’re going to have to see how I do that.
M&C: What differentiates this season from the prior?
Sue Aikens: I know almost all of the cast, and most I’ve met in person. Actually, all of them I’ve met in person, but to differing degrees. One of the things I think that you really see in this season and where we’re just starting to work on is there’s now this level of maturity, confidence, not only in the crew. And you always get different crew members.
It’s not the same. But we’ve reached a level of comfort with each other, and in what we’re doing, it’s like Ricko with his kids. His kids are growing up. And that’s one thing that people think about my grandson that was on the show a couple of times. And they, they think of this cute little boy and, oh my God, he’s just so cute.
Well, he is actually six foot six or whatever, 280 pounds and 21 years old now. So, but you, you see Ricko and his son who was like, I looked, and I went, oh my God, he’s so big, but it’s the maturity level and what we’re representing, what we’re doing, but all of us have been hit by COVID differently. How do we deal with that? How do we adjust for it? Has it affected us?
Maybe for some, it hasn’t, and you see that as well. We’re changing our lives as you would, as you grow, me, I’m almost 60 and I pulled some ligaments in my knee, but thank God I’ve got a spare because if this one bothers me, [I’ll] hack it off, drag it behind, tie it to your shoulder and you keep on going. [Laughs]
And how do we persevere? Because our survivor instincts will come in, and you see, to me, how do we pick out and do, ‘oh yeah, that COVID thing sucks. Sorry about your luck.’
I’ve got to go to this because, actually, it’s weird, and you see us take off and do different things because we can forecast that. It’s not going to go away real quick, but it will affect us pretty hard. So we start doing things a little differently. And I think there’s really an interesting flavor to that.
And with the next-gen, there’s a little bit of a cast thing on, but again, you see a little bit more comfort, relaxation, expansion of the first season you’re filming and that you see the characters and now you see what works, what’s cohesive. The kids are growing, and, it’s like, finally, the river picks a channel, and then you see how it flows through the mountains.
M&C: Is your grandson going to be on next-gen?
Sue Aikens: No, not that I know of.
M&C: It was a fair question, though. I mean, you are the Life below Zero OG, and he is your grandson and 280 pounds!
Sue Aikens: Yeah, he’s not really into the city life, but he’s not fully immersed into the ‘gimme, gimme’ [of that world]. Or into wearing a wolf hat and a Tomahawk, either. He’s a blending of the two. So it’ll be interesting to see as he’s got no desire to go to university, but he’s got every desire to learn how to wire a house, build a log cabin. So I’ve given him a piece of property and a few tools and a chain saw. I’m like, well, what are you going to do with it?
M&C: Any near encounters with any bears or wolves that we can look forward to seeing you fend off?
Sue Aikens: You will meet Stella. She is a wolf that emerged when I had a bad accident that you don’t get to see happen, this arm from here all the way down, third-degree burns, and it happened, there was an accident that happened here. My little poochie, his sweater got caught, he went into the fire, and he got burned. I pulled him out, but my arm got stuck to the stove pipe.
The weather was so bad. It was right before Christmas. No rescue, no anything could make it for five to seven weeks. So I had to deal with it myself. I have all this stuff. I put my own IV in, cleaned it. I treated it. I had to finish the antler medicine that I started last year, and it took care of it.
But as I was screaming, a wolf was in dire trouble that I was part of a study with a zoo. And I helped her in her time of need, which I’m going to leave a little vague. And she turned around and helped me back. She was howling when I was screaming. I never experienced pain like that. And then she brought me a rabbit and left it on my doorstep, which was like, ‘I thank you.’ And thread it through the season. So, Stella, the wolf is still threaded through my life. Yes.
M&C: Stella, is your wolf watching over you, your wolf spirit, but she’s real?
Sue Aikens: Yes. She is real. And I helped her out of a very bad situation. She almost died, I helped her and she’s helped me out of a similar [situation], so now we have this symbiotic relationship.
M&C: I know that you’re not completely isolated all year round, but there’s a span of time that you are. Is it starting to get to you, or do you still cherish the isolation?
Sue Aikens: Yes, I still cherish it. It is the time that I’ve always used to take a breath, collect my thoughts, let the inner child go. But, oh my God, I get to play the sandbox finally. You hunt, you get something, and that’s the easy part of it. Then you have to cut it, clean it and make something.
Arthritis really rears its ugly head on me this year. And there’s not much I can do about it. I had massive spinal surgery in 2020, and I thought it would be a lot less surgery than it was. Turns out they just went, ‘oh my God, woman, let’s do the whole zipper.’
But there’s no way to hide that as I’m doing it. I do it. And I do it well. It [hunt and field dressing] takes a lot longer than it used to, but I’m literally in tears doing this, and they’re [producers] are like, ‘wow, are you just going to start flying in more?’
I’m like, no, I still love it. I still do it. I still prefer that meat to anything else. I’m still going to respect it and get every bit of it that I can.
But yeah, it hurts. Do I see myself doing it when I’m 80? I’m like, no, I’ve got to work harder to train the grandkids. So my granddaughter looks at me, and then I show her a picture of a caribou, and she’s going ‘yum,’ and there you go.[Laughs]
Age happens to us all, and I may dye my hair. I may not right now. Obviously, I’m not at the moment. The funny thing is I was out there hunting recently, and I’m putting this sneak down on something and [I am in] the bushes up here, and I’m looking through the brush like this.
And the thing [I am hunting] is like, ‘oh,’ and he’s backing away. And I’m like, my head’s not even exposed, I mean, my eyes are still down here. And some people were watching from the trailers. So I got to get my little sled and so I can carry this stuff back, and they’re cracking up, and I said, ‘well, what’s so funny?’
And they said the spotlight is your [hair] and gave it away. And I’m like, well, it is a sunny day. It’s not dark. And they said, no, ‘this’ [her streak of silver hair] it shines when the sun hits it. So every time I had come up this far, it was shining in his eyes. Wow. I’ve got to figure that out. I was thinking, okay, I stained my cabinets for the one episode. I just had to do that to my hair.
But I try not to hide that age happens. Right? Sometimes we get a little Turkey wobble. Okay? And that’s going to happen. And standing for hours at a time in the water hurts. Okay. So I’m going to get a rock, and I’m going to sit down.
This is life. We do get older, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not as determined up here. Or that I’m not as outgoing. So that’s the threat you’re going to see throughout the year that COVID is happening. Pandemics are happening. Our children are growing, our grandchildren are growing, and we still keep at it.
It’s still Life Below Zero. And this O.G. is still going strong.
Life Below Zero and Life Below Zero: Next Generation season premiere September 6th on Monday, Sept. 6 at 8 p.m. on National Geographic Channel. They will then air their second episodes the next night. The following week, both will air in their normal Tuesday timeslots: 8 p.m. for Life Below Zero and 9 p.m. for Next Generation.More: Life Below Zero