As winter nears, we might start to feel sorry for ourselves ... unless we've met Sue Aikens, who spends each winter alone, in weather that sometimes hits 50-below. And yes, she does it on purpose. She's one of the intriguing "Life Below Zero" people; here's the story I sent to papers:
By MIKE HUGHES
Sue Aikens might
seem neatly suited for our talky-texty social world.
Once a star student
in suburban Chicago, she talks quickly and cheerfully. “I'm not
exactly known for being shy,” she said.
And her career
choice? Her camp, 197 miles north of the Arctic Circle, leaves her
completely alone, eight to nine months a year.
“My first reaction
when I got there was to be in tears,” Aikens recalled. “It was a
little bit (run down).”
The moping stopped,
she said, when a bear swiped at her. “It was game on .... I'm
That was 11 years
ago; now she owns the camp and she's a reality star. Aikens did one
episode of “Sarah Palin's Alaska” and four of “Flying Wild
Alaska”; then became key to “Life Below Zero.”
The show, returning
after a four-month break, has plenty of other intriguing Alaskans:
-- Andy Bassich, who
spent 20 years as a riverboat captain, “but in my heart I always
knew I wanted to be out in the Bush.”
-- Kate Bassich, who
met her husband while vacationing from Newfoundland. “I went from
diva to ditch digger ... from city life to Bush life. It's been the
best experience I could possibly imagine.”
-- Two men – Erik
Salitan and Glenn Villeneuva -- who work solo, hunting or guiding.
-- And Chip and
Agnes Hailstone and their seven kids. A native Inupiaq, she's the
only adult on the show who was born in Alaska.
The others have
quickly become accustomed. “This is the first time Kate and I have
left the state in (six) years,” Andy Bassich told the Television
Critics Association at a lush Beverly Hills hotel.
The hotel took some
adjustment, Kate said. “It's very difficult to go from complete
silence to noise.”
Aikens savored the
swimming pool. “I got in water and I could stand there and I wasn't
losing body parts. That was exciting. And I flushed toilets! Never
She grew up in a
world where everyone can flush. That changed, she has said, when her
family moved to Fairbanks when she was 11 or 12 and her mom ignored
her; she learned the skills of the North.
Aikens, 50, has been
widowed and had a second marriage last 17 years. She has children and
grandchildren who sometimes visit her in the summer. But mostly,
she's been on her own.
“I had a 400-mile
trap line (and) 32 giant Alaskan malamute (dogs),” she said.“And
that 's how I lived.”
Then a friend asked
Aikens to manage the Kavik River Camp, which she later bought. “Kavik
is like a twisted bed and breakfast,” she said.
During the summer,
it's busy. “If there are 50 people staying, I'm cooking breakfast,
lunch and dinner for 50 people, doing their room, fueling the
airpanes, working the runway .... About 45 minutes to an hour a day
is what I give myself for sleep.”
And during the other
eight or nine months, she usually sees no one. Her job is to keep the
camp safe from freezing up or from being hit by intruders, either
human or bear.
The bears can be
lethal, despite her caution. Aikens had several run-ins with one,
before it surprised her while she was getting water. “The fog came
down, he snatched me .... You can feel where the teeth went into the
skull .... It took 10 days before somebody found me.”
She went to the
hospital for months of repairs ... but not before she found and
killed the bear.
understands that: “I walked out of my greenhouse a couple weeks ago
and I almost tripped over a black bear waiting for me outside the
gate. I'm wearing him now on my necklace.”
-- “Life Below
Zero,” 9 p.m. Tuesdays, National Geographic; returns with new
episode Nov. 4.
-- That episode
reruns at 11 p.m. Tuesday, 10 p.m. and midnight Thursday, 6 and 8
p.m. Nov. 11.
-- Other episodes
rerun at 7 and 8 p.m. Tuesday (Nov. 4), 9 and 11 p.m. Thursday, 9
a.m. to noon Sunday and 3 and 5 p.m. Nov. 11.