Sue Aikens Discusses Life Below Zero and Climate Change in Alaska

April 9, 2015

Sue Aikens is like many 50-year-old women—she does her chores, indulges in Downton Abbey and lives life to the fullest. However, she’s unlike most people in one big respect: she’s living life to the fullest nearly 200 miles north of the Artic Circle in Alaska.

National Geographic’s series Life Below Zero chronicles the exploits of seven folks striving to survive in Alaska. On of the show’s stars is Sue, who lives outside of Kavik, sleeps with a .44 pistol by her bed, and smokes cigars while telling you of her near-fatal tussle with a bear.

We asked the wilderness woman a few questions about life on the hunting camp she calls home and how she ended up on reality TV.

Did you imagine you’d be on a program like Life Below Zero at this stage in your life?
I don’t think anyone really thinks ahead about things like being on a television show. Over the years, before Life Below Zero, there were a few people who found out about me and found what I do interesting and filmed with me for other programs. That’s how the Life Below Zero producers found me. I am grateful for the opportunity I have been given through this series to create a permanent record of sorts so that my children, their children, and so on, will have the ability to watch what I do in my life instead of imagining it.

What’s your opinion on reality TV vs. fictional drama? Why is a show like Life Below Zero successful?
I don’t think that there are any other shows quite like Life Below Zero. The show has a very unique documentary style to it. It shows us as we perform the daily tasks and chores we would be doing even if cameras weren’t there. Sometimes we fail, sometimes we achieve our goals, but regardless they show us as we are—foibles and all. We are not actors and are never scripted to “perform,” and this makes all the difference. Scripted television has its place, but a show like Life Below Zero provides a unique opportunity for people to watch a real-life “Westward Ho” from the safety of their homes. They get to experience the harshness, and challenges, and ups and downs of our lifestyles with us. That’s always what viewers tell me they like the most.

How close are your nearest neighbors up in Kavik?
The Eskimo village of Kaktovik is approximately 125 miles to my northeast, however, I have not seen or been visited by anyone from there for over 10 years. They remain close friends but not daily visitors. Other than that, the closest city is Fairbanks at 500 miles south. Prudhoe Bay is 83.5 land miles or 60 miles as the crow flies from Kavik. It is an industrial town and has no residents, only a floating population of workers.

What’s your favorite season (it can’t possibly be winter!)?
My favorite season doesn’t exist. I am such a curious monkey by nature, and I enjoy each season for the variety of challenges and beauty that it brings. Winter is by far my longest season, but even in the starkness of winter, there are many depths and layers, each one bringing challenges and a new variety of chores and opportunities to explore. Spring brings with it a rapid renewal of life and matches my own joy at successfully surviving another winter and looking ahead to the next.

What happens when you’re sick or injured? How do you get help?
I make my own natural meds for when I am sick and am able to do my own doctoring and stitches if need be. Occasionally, I have an injury or illness that requires help or modern medicine. In these circumstances, I use my phone/Internet to get medicines to Prudhoe Bay and then air-dropped to Kavik. But that doesn’t always work. I know I’m taking a calculated risk that one day I may not get what I need in time, and the consequences have the potential to be dire. You must be comfortable with the potential of your own death to be truly able to live the way that I do. This season will give you a very direct look into this very question, so stay tuned and keep your eyes on the show!

What entertainment do you watch while we’re watching you survive up there in Alaska?
I don’t watch much TV… but I am a big fan of Downton Abbey! I am a closet chick flick fan and love the theater.

What’s your perspective on climate change? Do you notice changes up north?
I have noticed many large changes in my environment in the past eight to ten years: springs opening up, snowfall increases, and plant life changes. My animals are changing as well, and new species are finding the ability to thrive that previously resided much further south. Years ago, a high pressure system settled over Greenland and hasn’t left. This is the largest event that has affected my region’s weather patterns. This high system has enabled a pattern of intense low pressure systems to develop off Siberia and sling themselves across to my region, bringing an influx of warm moisture from the Pacific and increasing the water/snow levels. Added water means added life and life changes.
The planet has a history of heating and cooling. There is evidence of ice ages, as well as tropical plant life in my area and across the globe. The earth heats and cools cyclically. Have humans added more carbon dioxide to our atmosphere since the industrial age? The planet is always and will continue to always be in a state of flux. It is our job as custodians of the planet to react in a wise and conservative manner to ensure the survival of all species during these fluxes, not just our own.

Life Below Zero returns on Thursday, April 9 at 9/8c on National Geographic (Ch. 276).

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