Channel24’s Herman Eloff talks to Sue Aikens, one of the stars of the hit documentary television series Life Below Zero, about what it’s like to live in one of the loneliest places on Earth in the rugged Alaskan bush.
Cape Town – I’m a fan of TV shows that are off the beaten track, especially the type of reality show that details the lives of others vastly removed from my own.
One of those gems is undoubtedly Life Below Zero that chronicles the true-life experiences of people living in the most extreme parts of Alaska. So, I was excited to talk to one of the stars of the show, Sue Aikens - who lives in total isolation at Kavik River Camp in the remote Arctic tundra.
The adventurous loner survived a gruesome attack by a grizzly bear almost ten years ago thanks to her survival instinct. The 54-year-old stitched together her own head and arm after the attack and had to wait for 10 days before help finally arrived.
Her camp - used as a base by hunters, filmmakers, photographers, and scientists - is more than 800km away from the nearest city.
(Kavik River Camp where Sue lives alone for most parts of the year. Photo: BBC Earth)
When I talk to Sue on the phone she’s in London to not only do promo for the 5th season of the show, which airs Sundays at 17:00 on BBC Earth (DStv 184), but also to expand her knowledge on things like alternative energy which is critical to her survival in the Arctic.
“I’m at the BBC offices in London now. I decided there were some things I wanted to learn related to alternative energy. My brother-in-law, you might remember him from earlier seasons, is watching camp. He agreed to keep an eye on things while I came out and met with some people here,” Sue says about her trip.
“After the fourth day he already told me he is lonely,” she adds jokingly.
For Sue isolation is part of the game. In fact, it’s the very reason why she lives where she lives: “I crave extreme isolation. For me it’s not that bad. If you say you are lonely it’s a type of depressive state that you are giving in to. I don’t do that. I don’t come from an emotional place. I recognise that I live alone but it doesn’t mean that I’m lonely. I like being me and I like being around me.”
Leaving behind the peace, silence and isolation of the camp and visiting a big city like London must surely then be an adjustment.
“Yes, it’s an adjustment. It’s a lot of information. Again, I’m not giving in to the emotional side. Then I’m looking for the negativity. I will admit that it is a tremendous amount of information. The biggest challenge is that at camp I can always see into the distance and keep an eye on my perimeter, but drop me off in downtown London and I’m surrounded by buildings. That’s not a happy place for me. It’s like taking someone from the Kalahari and putting them in New York City. It’s completely out of your comfort zone.”
(Sue making her own snowshoes to be able to walk on the thick snow. Photo: BBC Earth)
In the fifth season of Life Below Zero the struggle for survival continues for Sue as the onslaught of winter looms once again in Alaska. With the last of the longer days coming to an end and winter's dark, brutal conditions starting to overtake the land, Sue has to ensure she’s prepared for what lies ahead. But a recent accident is making everything more of a challenge for her.
“I can’t giveaway a lot. I had a lot of preparing to do for a lot of severe storms and damaging winds. You are going to see me really try to get the hunting done before the extreme cold comes. There are issues with my body that I’m battling.
“At 54 there’s repercussions when you get into an accident. For me learning to shoot again was a challenge. The doctor said I would never use the right arm again but I am. It comes at a price. You are going to see a few surprises on how I come up with fixes. From a young age I had to learn how to shoot, how to solve problems. I learned how to do them for myself.”
For Sue the most important tool to ensure her survival in the extreme conditions is her mind. “Your mind is the most important. It’s either going to destroy your chances or it’s going to enable you to survive. How you look at things will dictate if you are going to survive or not. Like I said earlier with the being alone thing. If something bad happens you are going to have to be mentally prepared. If you think you can’t do it then you won’t. You aim for your own success by tuning your mind into the positive.”
(Sue going hunting during the warmer months. Photo: BBC Earth)
Living alone has its challenges but one of the perks is that Sue escapes the pesky fame element that comes with having a successful TV show. For Sue that means that she hardly ever needs to deal with that side of stardom. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t ever get recognised.
“I actually had an 83-year-old gentleman from South Africa, who is a fan of the show, come to visit the camp. His name is Chris. For his 83rd birthday his daughter asked him what he wanted for his birthday and he said he wanted to go see Sue. So, she arranged it with me and I got bush flights arranged and we got it all organised so he could get out there. I went to show him the polar bears.
“Yesterday, here in London, I went to St. Paul’s Cathedral and while I was in there I had a group from Romania recognise me. They tried to hide it. There was also a family from Australia that recognised me. For me it’s not about the fame but rather about getting the cultural exchange and meeting people,” Sue adds.
WATCH: SUE'S TOUGHEST MOMENTS:
Life Below Zero airs Sundays at 17:00 on BBC Earth (DStv 184).