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Sue Aikens exclusive interview: Life Below Zero star talks motherhood and kill or be eaten survival tactics

Sue Aikens of Life Below Zero is astoundingly competent and able to handle what the arctic throws at her for 9 month stretches alone. Pic credit: NGC/Sue Aikens
Sue Aikens of Life Below Zero is astoundingly competent and able to handle what the arctic throws at her for 9 month stretches alone. Pic credit: NGC/Sue Aikens

No one can accuse Sue Aikens of National Geographic Channel’s extreme docuseries Life Below Zero of being a coward, lazy or boring.

The mother of two is circling close to her 60th year but she is still vital, and alone north of the arctic circle a good portion of the year. She is adept at a great many things, not limited to cooking a tasty meal inside her Kavik compound with rudimentary cookware and limited space.

She can shoot to kill and field dress with the best of the hunters, all while being damned funny and down to earth. She even has famous fans who lose their composure when they interview her. But don’t crowd her, she prefers her own company and will even say so herself.

National Geographic’s fan-favorite series Life Below Zero is nonfiction reality TV at its best, showing us all the extreme lifestyles of tough Alaskans living off the grid. The series tracks six people as they battle for existence in the state with the lowest population density in the United States.

We see how families and individuals living alone like Sue face blinding whiteout snowstorms, precarious frozen terrain that morphs into frozen rivers and treacherous ice situations, not to mention the apex predator pals, those man-eating carnivores co-existing with the people who call this isolated region home.

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 at risk from being auctioned right out from under her to a higher bidder.

Around all this drama, the production crews suffer along too as the temperatures can go minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit or more. They have to pack heat in case a wolf or bear pops up and have YouTube war stories to boot.

Since its debut in 2013, the series has earned 11 Primetime Emmy nominations, including three in 2019 with Sue Aikens in Los Angeles to celebrate the Emmy Award event.

The series and has won three Emmys in all for its craft in cinematography and picture editing. The new season, which follows the extreme lifestyles of tough Alaskans living off the grid, will premiere Tuesday, September 24.

What we see along with Sue protecting her camp’s perimeter and guarding that bears don’t saunter in a little too close for comfort are some of the world’s loneliest longest stretches of roads and swaths of land. The frigid tundra, the rugged Alaskan bush, it will always be what feels like an interminable and bitter winter.

And finally, when the transitional season of spring arrives in Alaska, the wildness of the weather poses a new slate of problems and dangers. We spoke to Sue while she was in town for the Emmys and talked about this extreme isolated life of hers and a bit more:

Monsters and Critics: We stalked you a little bit on your social media, and saw your posts with your glam team getting you ready for the Emmy awards. How fun was that?

Sue has lost 75 pounds in one year to stay healthy for her arduous Arctic life. Pic credit: Sue Aikens/Facebook
Sue has lost 75 pounds in one year to stay healthy for her arduous Arctic life. Pic credit: Sue Aikens/Facebook

Sue Aikens: How fun is it to be able to play dress-up? I keep saying I refuse to graduate kindergarten. I get snacks and naps, so what’s not to love? But a part of that for a girl, I don’t think you ever quite grow out of… Like for me, the old-style Miss America pageant or whatever, there is a part of you that just, how fun is it to be pampered, and look nice, and do a red carpet? That is fun.

I don’t want to live that way forever, but it was a very, very fun evening or two.

M&C: Speaking of where you live, I understand that you have two residences in Alaska, right? You have the camp which is your business, which is where they shoot the show. And then you bought a homestead somewhere in Alaska?

Sue Aikens: There is Kavik, which is where I live, and where the show is shot… In order to live on the North Slope as a Caucasian, I may not own land on the North Slope. I have to lease the land from the agency that owns it and have a business that is open to oil and gas.

It’s an oil camp that I’ve turned into a twisted bed and breakfast. The lease that I have with the state has been taken away and I’ve been given a temporary permit. As the refuge was authorized to open up for other business, they took my lease away…The lease is going to be auctioned off with corporate interest, so I have to outbid all the large corporations to get my lease back.

So I’m operating under a temporary permit, and they’re going to auction it off with the oil leases. So I don’t know that I can keep it. I don’t know that I can outbid the Mobile and Exxons and Arcos of the planet.

I did buy a place that has a cabin or two. There’s an older cabin and a newer cabin on it. And I’m working on those as the off chance that I cannot keep Kavik. So it’s a little more convoluted than just having a business one and then a place that I live. I don’t technically live at the cabin property yet, but I can’t imagine a life where I’m not ready for the next step.

So that’s what I’ve done is I’ve gotten this other property, and I’m working on it and I’m trying to make it my own. It is closer to town than I would have imagined myself wanting to be, but that doesn’t follow that I can’t be happy there. I have to be prepared, as I’m getting closer and closer to 60, and being unsure what’s happening at Kavik. I’m still going to try my best and fight for it, but I have to be prepared in case it doesn’t go my way.

M&C: You have such an interesting backstory. From what I’ve read, your mother reportedly abandoned you at age 12 in Alaska. Is that a true story?

Sue Aikens: I don’t go into great detail about how I ended up at a very young age having to… My mom brought me as a very young person to Alaska. She had things that happened for her. My mother is alive and in her 80s. If I haven’t held anything against her that happened, I don’t think the rest of the planet has that right.

We don’t get to go four decades later, and go backwards and say, “You evil person.” That’s not fair. That’s cruelty. Is it the way that I would have scripted it? No, not as a child, but it takes everything that I went through to make me who I am, and I really like myself.

So, yes, my mother went through something, and I ended up having to figure out how to survive and thrive from a very young age. Graduated high school extremely young, had to go back and do another class because I didn’t take Alaska Past and Present as a history course. So I’ve got two diplomas. Learned how to fly an airplane by the time I was 13.

M&C: Wow. Pilot license at 13?

Sue Aikens: Mm-hmm. Yep. Uh-huh. In Alaska, back in the day, in junior high and high school, you had a choice. You could learn how to drive a car, or fly a plane. I have no idea if they still offer that. I know in some of the remote villages we do, but I don’t know about in standard schools.

M&C: But you’re a mother now…

Sue Aikens: I have two children. I have a 35-year-old daughter and a 32-year-old son. I had four grandchildren, one passed away. I have three grandchildren. My son and his wife are expecting their first child in January. So I’ll have another little granddaughter then.

M&C: How would you describe the way you mothered your two children? Did you prepare them for Alaska?

Sue Aikens: I would say… They were in Alaska part of the time. They were in Oregon part of the time. Perhaps maybe I’m an intense personality…Boy, I don’t know how to describe my parenting style.

There was a meme I saw on the internet, and it shows this one little… Like a kangaroo and the baby’s in the pouch, and it’s like, “I will love you forever.” And it’s one style of parenting.

And then you see another one and they’re hugging each other, and it’s like, “And I’m going to love you forever.” Then you go to the third one and there’s just this very loving thing. And then here’s a bird that’s kicking the little one out of the nest going, “Fly.”

That’s kind of more my parenting technique. I love my kids, and I brought them into the world, and they are so stinking capable. And I cherish that about them. But I’m a firm believer in, “Of course, I’m there. Of course, I’m going to work extremely hard, that’s what I do.”

But if you shadow your children so heavily… Everything needs to be in the sun to grow. You must back away, or they’re never going to get the sunshine to grow into their own potential. You have to give them room for their roots to take root, and you have to give them room for the sunshine to grow on their own shoulders.

If you don’t, then they’re always in your shadow, and they’re just a slighter version of yourself. That’s not what I want. I need them to grow into their full potential. I’ll be back there somewhere doing my own thing.

I have a boyfriend now…And when they met him, the first thing, independently, that they asked him was, “Please don’t try to change my mom. Let her be that wild person she needs to be. Because if you take that away, she’ll start to wither. So please don’t change my mom.”

I think that’s a pretty good compliment, that I could stay the wilderness rough and tumble, and they admire that in me. But yet, they know… And we have a phrase the children and I share, that if they ever say this particular phrase, and my grandkids know it now, too, if they ever say that, no matter where I’m at, no matter what I’m doing, I stop, I drop, and I get there.

And that’s a comfort zone for them that they don’t abuse that phrase. But if they ever need me beyond the shadow of a doubt, and I hear those words, the planet can stop and I will get there.

Otherwise, we have our own individual lives to live.

M&C: You experienced a bear attack in 2007, and later you went under the ice. These injuries, have they taken a toll on you? Are there specific things you’re dealing with? And then, that dovetails into, “Gosh, if you’re there alone, north of the Arctic Circle, and something happens medically, what’s your fallback?”

Sue Aikens: I think no matter where you are, I don’t have to be an age range or a location to have injuries affect me. Some of the different things that I’ve done and been through, like now, the bear attack, and some of the other things. My hips, the spine, knees, ankles, joints, they really do affect me, they really do hurt.

One of the things you’re going to see in this upcoming season, I’m a chunky little monkey, there’s no doubt. There’s fat and sassy, there’s all kinds of things. But you will notice that I’ve lost a tremendous amount of weight this year.

I’ve decided that there’s enough time in between the different injuries, and the parts of my body that needed to heal, that I could really push and start getting in shape.

I can’t do some of the old style of exercising that I used to do, just because different body parts just don’t move that way anymore. But you’ll see throughout the episodes, the chores and the things that I’m doing are very physical. I choose to set down some of the machinery and do a lot by hand, and a lot without tools, just to start pushing the body.

So from last October to now, I’ve lost almost 75 pounds, and I’ve really gotten in shape. So that when it comes down to the time where, “Yes, I have to have my hips worked on. Yes, maybe I have to have some more work done on shoulders, or other parts of my body,” then I’m in a place where… I’m only a couple of years away from being 60, so let’s take some of the excess off so that the work is easier, so that I’m in a much healthier peak to withstand the next session of my life.

Because, you know, this last… the next 30 years are going to be the ones that, “Hey, I better be in good condition to start, because it ain’t going to go uphill from there.”

And are there emotional or mental things that I deal with? Sure. I still don’t like going on… I don’t like the ice. I don’t like hearing that crack that reminds you, “You could go under again.” No matter what you go through in life, you’re going to have reminders. And the longer we go through our lives, there’s more.

So I think only a person that’s not being terribly honest is going to be able to say, “Oh no, I don’t ever think of that.” Sure you do. But it’s whether you let it stop you. I had to get comfortable a long time ago with the fact that I might not make it through the lifestyle I chose. And I’m not seeking my own death, but I’m not afraid of it either.

If something breaks, I’ll either set it, chop it off, or sew it up. And that’s just the way that I am.

I make my own medicines. I have lots of little limbs that I’ve set aside for splints here and there. I’ve got baseball bats all around camp, hidden away, so if something does jump out at me, if I don’t have a rifle on me, I’ll bat it to death. I try to prepare as much as I can, and then I accept the outcome.

M&C: What’s the closest call you’ve had, speaking of things jumping out at you, that the cameras maybe didn’t catch when you’ve been there at Kavik?

Sue Aikens: Oh my gosh. You don’t get to see him. I have a little tiny dog, his name is Little Bob, and he’s a three pound, one ounce toy poodle. And my granddaughter actually, when the last sled dog, Ermie, passed away, she raised this thing, and then sent it up in a box. It was just this quintessential, “I’m sending something up,” and here’s this box with holes.

I looked, and I said, “This is so inappropriate. This dog is not appropriate to here.” And she started crying, and she was like, “But you have nothing to love [it], just love. It’s always work to you.” And so I said, “Okay, okay, I’ll try it. But you realize, even the squirrels can kick this thing’s butt.”

But I named him Little Bob, and now I sew him clothes, and I have fancy hats. I have a monkey hat, he has a monkey hat. I have a bear outfit, he has a bear outfit. And I’m just like this quintessential fur-baby mom. But I will say he’s on a leash when he’s out, and he loves the snow, but I take him out to go potty.

And now it’s [Arctic] dark. I only have a little headlamp on, so I’m taking him out. And I see what I thought were the eyes of my little fox. And he’s got one fox that thinks he’s pretty cool. He’s not allowed to play with him, because he will trigger a fox’s instinct as a predator, because he’s small. But they will sniff each other.

I looked and I went, “Hey, Slinky.” And about six feet, eight feet away, and the only thing I can say is it turned around and it lumbered. And I looked at that, and I went, “Run.” And I drop the leash, and I leave the door to the Twinkie… My tent is long and yellow and filled with goodness, so I call it a Twinkie. I dropped the leash, and I told Little Bob, I said, “Run.”

And the thing… It’s a wolverine, and mine are very, very large up in the high Arctic. And they undulate when they run. And it lumbered at me from six, eight feet away, so I had to take the .44 Mag out, and I shot him from about four feet.

But it was really, really close. And so I had to turn around, spin, and get back inside, and got a better light on. I have an alternative energy system. Got the bigger spotlight on, and I had made a good hit on it.

No matter what animal it is, I will harvest the meat, and I will use the meat and whatnot. But that was one that could have ended very badly, because had I just not seen it and I had taken him out, I very easily… And people say, “Oh, wolverines, there’s never been a case of one attacking a human.” I’m like, “No.” Maybe not in the cities, but you live how I live…

It’s not that every animal is out to get you, but they don’t see me as, “Oh, wait a minute, that’s a person. I can’t touch you, I’m so sorry. I’m going to wait till a caribou comes up in five months.” They see you as a food group, and you are.

Therefore, you have to be prepared to protect yourself. I don’t know, there’s lots of different incidents. Coming out and on top of my old fuel barrels I used to keep, there was a wolf. I had gotten a notice from the state that there were wolves that were rabid, and then they had distemper, so be very careful. And there was a wolf … a few of them that were behaving very atypically.

Well, I had just gone out the door. Now, you got to remember, it’s 24-hour darkness. So I’ve gone out the door, the barrel is maybe three feet away, and this thing lunged at me. And I just barely moved, but it still, it clipped me, and the saliva got me, and the weather was bad. And I had killed it, but it was acting so atypically, and it couldn’t move very well.

I had to call it in, I had to bag it up. Waited for the trooper to get there. If you’ve been bitten and the saliva has gotten into a sore, and it’s rabid, you have two weeks and that’s it. If they haven’t gotten the injections in, you’re done. And it was the day before the two weeks when they finally got there, did the test, and it was not rabid. But we didn’t know that, it was the others. So that was not comfortable. But you don’t know.

M&C: Yeah. You’re a tough lady.

Sue Aikens: It definitely is interesting. It’s definitely not a lifestyle for everybody. And I do have my times where I look and go, “What the hell are you thinking? Seriously, Sue?”

But then something else happens, and I go, “Hey, yeah, this is why I do it.” I get to see things that maybe other people don’t get to see. This year I get very emotional on one portion. I clean up a whole extension of the river…something that had happened maybe in the ’30s or ’40s trashed a whole extension of the river. I get to clean it up, and there’s tiny little baby fish living in it now. How can I not feel proud of that?

So it’s a unique lifestyle, that’s for sure.

M&C: Well, you’re a good steward of the land.

Sue Aikens: I hope so.

Life Below Zero airs Tuesdays (beginning September 24) at 9/8c on National Geographic Channel.

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