You can call someone a tough mother, but Sue Aikens, one of the subjects of “Life Below Zero” (season two premiere Thurs. April 17 at 9:00 p.m. on Nat Geo) takes it one step further — she's one tough grandmother. And she's really tough — fans of the show know that after being attacked by a bear six years ago, she “had to sew my head together, my arm, and then before my hips popped out, because they had been dislocated, I went across the river.” There she found the bear that attacked her, shot him, and called for help — which didn't come for ten days. ” Yeah, tough.
She's also far more personable and friendly than you might expect of someone who voluntarily (and happily) spends nine months out of the year in total isolation as the manager of Kavik River Camp north of the Arctic Circle in Alaska. She admits that life is tough — “You do have to be comfortable with your own death” — but she loves it. I spoke to Sue over the phone, and we talked (until the Alaska-to-California connection failed, after which she answered questions via e-mail) about killing, survival and a lot of other stuff.
HitFix: Six years ago you were attacked by a bear and badly wounded. It's an amazing tale of survival.
Sue Aikens: This was a juvenile male, and out here I'm very aware I live in the bear's world, not the other way around. I protect camp the same way a bear would… and with a juvenile male, he wants to get his own territory. Chicks don't dig him yet, it's a territory push. To get that territory, you have to subjugate something. He had been harassing the camp, so I knew there would be a run-in. When I flew out for provisions, he would rear up from his hidey-hole and growl.
HitFix: But he snuck up on you?
Aikens: It was winter, so I put on a double layer of warm gear, and I had to go get water. I looked and looked for him and didn't see him, so I put the pump in the river, but he was hiding in the river and snatched me up. When a bear attacks, It's like two dogs playing with one another, you know how when one has the other on its back? He rolled me, and any movement is a sign of engagement, or you accept what's happening and say you're the big guy. He bluff charged. My hips get pulled out of their sockets, and you can still feel the place where his teeth went in my head. I did not remember I had a rifle down by the river.
Afterward, bears are known to be carriers of bacteria, so I got all cleaned up and called a lot of people, but just got answering machines. [The attack] was basically an eviction notice, so I went to where I knew he was and shot him. Then, my hips gave out, and I could only pull myself forward. I laid there ten days until a pilot found me.
HitFix: This season, we see you kill a bear and you say it brought back memories of being attacked. How so?
Aikens: That [first episode] is the first time I have actively pursued and gone on the aggressive. It's sort of a passive hunt if they go outside and mess with the camp and come to you. Somebody gave me an old sledding dog that's about 15 years old. I tell people I'm bent and she's broken. Anyway, she was in the house and the bear came in and scared some people. So killing him, that's a different mindset. When you go out to pursue something, your mindset is way different than being on the defense.
HitFix: So being a hunter changed everything for you?
Aikens: My perspective of the whole thing is a little bit different, and when that bear came around coming toward me, I can't help but flash back to the incident that was very scary, but I had to set that aside and focus on what was happening. One cough turned me from predator to prey, as you can see in the episode.
HitFix: You don't have much in the way of communication technology up there, do you?
Aikens: I'm talking to you on an Internet voice phone. Being a grandmother and a mother, even though I want to be Jane of the jungle, I do have kids and grandkids I want to stay in touch with.
HitFix: How do they feel about your decision to be up there?
Aikens: I moved here twelve years ago, but I've always lived in remote locations and on my own terms. My family, they're very supportive. I'm a large personality, there's no mistake when I walk into a room, and I think having kids is like dropping seedlings. You don't want them to be always in your shadow. A wise parent knows when to let them them have the paint can with all the colors so they can pick the ones they like.
HitFix: Loneliness aside, how do you deal with health issues? One bad fall or an aggressive cold and you're done for.
Aikens: I am aware, and I've taught myself about food and the medicinal value the things around me have. I do my own medicines and know how to make my own stitches, but sometimes life throws you a curveball. There are some bush pilots I can call, and I have a doctor in Fairbanks. Sometimes they have to send antibiotics. Three hundred miles away there's search and rescue. I did call them after the bear attack and no one showed up. You have to prepare that something can do you in. You have to be comfortable with your own death. Sometimes you roll snake eyes.
HitFix: How have you been able to survive twelve years in almost complete isolation?
Aikens: It's just small part of my 51 years on the planet, and I've always enjoyed extreme isolation. The harder the challenge, the more I'm intrigued by it. This is just a place to use the information I've learned. I fully expect something new and shiny will be on the horizon for me. I don't say Kavik is it and I'll never change. I love a challenge and I'm curious about everything.
HitFix: If you love isolation, having a camera crew following you around must have been a challenge.
Aikens: They are a good bunch of bananas. A really intriguing bunch of guys and women came out. Some of them have climbed Mt. Everest, so they're interesting. But it's a challenge for me, because when they come out, it's my alone time. But when I feel like putting myself in a time-out, I put myself time-out and spend some time alone. I don't get into the movie magic.
HitFix: What has been your most rewarding experience in Alaska (I'm pretty sure we know the scariest!)?
Aikens: I am not sure that I can really pick a “most rewarding” experience, as that feeling has fluctuated over many experiences and many, many years. I suppose that my personal favorite thing I experience is when I extend Kavik stays and visits for children in need or with medical difficulties. I love to do whatever it takes to help them achieve the goal of their individual visits, throw in a couple of dreams and watch their faces blossom into joy. THAT is a cool batch of beans.
HitFix: You make a wonderful point of thanking the bear for his sacrifice and really valuing his life, which seemed to echo the Native American perspective (and you also thank Brother Bear). Do you have a strong spiritual belief?
Aikens: I do have a belief system, but EVERY living thing deserves to be respected and cherished. This includes, and perhaps especially should include, the taking of a life for personal gain such as meat. I try to respect all things here as well as the eco-system as a whole. Learning to understand how a system works can enable you to thrive and co-exist better in any situation so I try my best.
HitFix: What do you hope your kids and grandkids learn from you?
Aikens: I can only hope to be a positive role model for them. What they need to glean from my example will be a very personal thing to and for them. Knowing and respecting themselves as well as the world would be great! Live wisely and without fear but with much respect for and of others. The family motto is “It's nice to be nice.” Just that simple, yet oh so important.
HitFix: How did you end up on Life Below Zero? Is it something you're doing just out of curiosity? Do you hope this will be educational for people?
Aikens: The creator of the show concept had seen me on a couple of other shows and thought I would be a good fit, so they asked me to consider being a cast member. It is essential to me that the show (any show) I am on is not scripted but shows glimpses of real life situations as they are with no window dressing. Life can be exciting enough all on its own without the added BS, and this show portrays an honest bird's eye view of what a handful of remote people are actually doing. Kudos!
I do not presume to hope people will learn anything particular, but glean what they need to or simply enjoy the show. National Geographic has always been an icon of life and nature portrayals, [so] I am honored they asked and chose me to participate.
HitFix: You mentioned that it was important to you that the show not be scripted in any way — what else was important to you?
Aikens: I just am myself. No frills… no make up and no varnish, unless I choose to add it myself. It is nice that the show allows me to be just who and what I am…. no frills, just right.
Are you going to watch the second season of “Life Below Zero”?