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Aikens offers unique perspective on living in remote Alaska

There’s no doubt Sue Aikens is a rare individual. She thrives on conditions that would scare most of us, but charges on like a Soldier in battle.

10/27/15 (Tue)

Relaxing in Kenmare home . . . Sue Aikens relaxes with Aussie in her Kenmare home Thursday. Aikens, who normally lives in the North Slope Borough of Alaska and was in town as a guest of the GooseFest, is convalescing following a series of surgeries after a snowmobile accident.

By Marvin Baker

There’s no doubt Sue Aikens is a rare individual. She thrives on conditions that would scare most of us, but charges on like a Soldier in battle.

Aikens, star of the reality TV show “Life Below Zero” on the National Geographic Channel, was in Kenmare last week as the celebrity guest at GooseFest.

She talked about her life in Kavik River Camp, a place she owns near the Arctic Ocean and Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, 500 miles north and slightly east of Fairbanks.

 Aikens is the only resident of Kavik River Camp. She lives in a big tent designed for bitter cold, one that she calls a challenge every day, but admits that she’s improving her comfort zone.

 She’s been attacked by a bear and patched herself up because the nearest doctors are located in Fairbanks, and the camp is so remote, the nearest Caucasian inhabitants are 100 miles away in an industrial community called Deadhorse, which actually represents the north end of the Dalton Highway.

“They say I’m 197 miles north of the Arctic Circle, but I think it’s more like 220 miles,” Aikens said in an exclusive interview with The Kenmare News. “It’s 69.4 Degrees North Latitude.”

Living in the High Arctic poses a numerous set of challenges that many of us can’t even imagine that Aikens has adapted to very well. She’s been there 13 years and says she has learned to work wiser than harder.

As an example, the Kavik River freezes at the end of August and so Aikens has to have a fresh water supply until she can melt snow. So, she stores water and is very conservative, using about a gallon a day.

Northeast Alaska is considered a desert so only 8 inches of precipitation falls annually, mostly in the form of snow.

Her thermometer hits bottom at 100 below zero, and although it has never been that cold anywhere in the United States, she says it often will drop into the 60-below range with 60-mile-per-hour wind.

The average high temperature barely reaches 50 degrees in July and August and Aikens endures an average daytime high of 18 degrees.

And when things like generators break down, she has to fix them since she is alone most of the year.

“Accidents and breakdowns aren’t going to happen when it’s 70 degrees,” Aikens said.

But here is the real clincher. The sun sets Nov. 24 and doesn’t rise again until Jan. 18, which means more than two months of darkness.

“There’s some ambient light, so my sun starts coming back in March,” Aikens said. “That’s about as complicated as it gets.”

In addition, Aikens, who grew up in Illinois, is Caucasian in Native American country and she must abide by laws that protect the environment as well as the wildlife.

She says Indian reservations don’t exist as we know them and native Americans live together in villages.

“There’s Eskimos and Indians and they’re not the same,” Aikens says. “They’re not on reservations like in the lower world. They’re amazing cultures.”

With that said, Kavik River Camp can’t have permanent structures and her business, which is lodging for hunters and tourists, as well as a refueling station for bush pilots, must be profitable or she would be told to leave.

There are no roads, only a runway.

“I’ve got the only gas station on the east side of the North Slope,” Aikens said. “That’s half the size of the state of California.”

 Bears live in the neighborhood and Aikens says most are grizzlies. She has seen polar bears, however, they are a challenge in themselves as she can only shoot a polar bear in defense of her life. If a polar bear visited the camp, she could only watch it wander through.

She talked about obtaining a bighorn sheep license and having to go 65 miles in order to hunt it.

“That’s 65 miles to get a sheep in the winter,” she said. “As a Caucasian, I have a tag, but it’s 65 miles. But, if I have to ski that far, good, point it out to me and I’m on my way.”

Aikens gets to “town” once every couple of years on average unless there is an urgent need. “Town” is Fairbanks and it’s as far from Kavik River Camp as Kenmare is from  Sioux Falls, S.D.

She communicates with a couple of doctors in Fairbanks and gets general medical supplies from them. Otherwise, she’s on her own in the elements.

“If a limb stops working, then I’ll go to town,” Aikens said. “I make a lot of food and meds and I know what’s edible in the bush.”

More recently, she has gone to Mayo Clinic at Phoenix, AZ, because she was badly injured in a snowmobile accident about a year ago and has now had seven surgeries. She says her Mayo doctor has told her she won’t be going back to Kavik River Camp until at least January.

When she does get to Fairbanks, it’s not at all like her daily routine.

“Fairbanks is a town with all the amenities and I have to be re-introduced to society,” Aikens said. “I love theater and opera, but to me, that’s like going on vacation.”

When she goes back to the High Arctic, Aikens says she doesn’t get lonely and she doesn’t worry about time, as both are a perspective. Instead, she treasures her alone time.

“I don’t have a watch and I never set a clock forward or back,” she said. “And because I have to have a profitable business, if someone comes in for fuel at 3 o’clock in the morning, I’m not going to tell them I open at 9. It’s always 24-7.”

Kavik River Camp is nearly as unique as Aikens. Once an oil “man camp,” a friend owned it and asked her several years ago about managing it. She became manager and purchased the camp four years ago.

“They were using 250 gallons of fuel a day, but I wanted to be the first ‘green’ camp in oil country,” she said. “I’ve been here almost 14 years and when they said I could buy it, I did and turned it into a ‘green’ camp adding wind turbines and solar. We got it down to six to 10 gallons a day and now I’ve got that down to 6 to 10 gallons a week.”

She’s obviously proud of that feat and says the camp is now much desired by the oil companies.

“If a 50-year-old fat chick can do it, so can Exxon or Mobil,” she said.

She’s always concerned about the environment, as many Alaskans are, and says the ecosystem in northeastern Alaska is protected and delicate.

Numerous flora and fauna have adapted and thrive there and oil companies must take steps to protect that environment.

As an example, she says there’s a species of wood frog that produces glycol in its body and the frog can withstand the harsh weather blowing across the North Slope.

Aikens says squirrels will eat food that produces glycol so they can survive as well.

She’s not afraid of the bears even though she was attacked by one several years ago and had to stitch her wounds herself.

Most of the bears around Kavik River Camp are grizzlies and she says they are quite different than Kodiaks even though the bears are related. The Kodiaks eat fish and taste like fish, Aikens says, while the grizzlies eat berries, caribou and squirrels, making it a clean and tasty meat.

“I have a unique perspective on how to see nature,” Aikens said. “I’m part of their community.”

She talks about climate change and believes it because of changes she has seen in her 14 years in the High Arctic.

“Climate change is happening,” Aikens said. “I won’t say all these SUVs are driving the bus but we’re beginning to get on that bus.”

Her life, her perspective and her brutal honest nature were perfect for the reality show “Life Below Zero.”

She got involved almost three years ago when a friend who was in another show called “Flying Wild Alaska,” as well as the writer of the show and a BBC film crew stopped at Kavik River Camp.

She said the writer of the show came up with “Life Below Zero,” which is a reality show about several people living in remote areas of Alaska.

“I told them I don’t do anything scripted,” Aikens said. “There are enough interesting things going on here.”

One of the episodes filmed her snowmobile accident. She literally flew off the machine, turned left, flipped and flew through the air tumbling into the snow.

“I got banged up pretty good about a year ago,” she said.

In another episode, Aikens says the film crew came out and wanted to follow her while she was hunting.

She considers herself a good shot, but unfortunately, she said the animals are going to run when there is a 6-foot individual behind her wearing a blaze orange vest.

“They really wanted me on the show and for whatever reason, people wanted to see it,” Aikens said. “But there are boundaries and I set them.”

She has also made a cameo on “Amazing America,” with Sarah Palin.

She said the former Alaska governor came to Kavik River Camp to do some filming with a group of children with her.

But instead of spending the entire time filming, after the crew got some clips, Palin told them to shut the cameras off and she played games with the children for hours.

“She’s a little goofy like all Alaskans are, but she was a boon for the state,” Aikens said. “I’m not sure the world was ready for her politics.”

Aikens had an inkling of living a lifestyle like this when she was young, growing up in Palatine, IL. She says she wanted to be a lighthouse operator.

She has always been challenge driven and an explorer. She doesn’t do well when someone else is giving orders.

She used to have sled dogs and when they weren’t pulling sleds in the winter, they were pulling her canoe up the Kavik River in the summer.

“Don’t tell me I can’t because I can,” Aikens said. “I’m brutally honest and to be in this position, I have to be or I will fail.”

She’s been married and after her husband passed away, realized her current lifestyle is how she wanted it.

“I believe in relationship,” Aikens said “Marriage is a fine art, but it’s about compromise and I’m not ready to compromise,”

Aikens tenacity and rigid motivation come through in “Life Below Zero” as well as talking to someone on the street.

She will tell you how it is with no boundaries but she has a soft spot for children as she has grandchildren and helps children with autism get to Kavik River Camp in the summer months.

She says autistic children are often misunderstood and we have to teach them at their pace, which is a good fit with Kavik River Camp, according to Aikens. She caters to others as well.

“I pay for Eagle Scouts to come,” she said. “Kids come free.”

For paying tourists or hunters, the fee is $350 per day which includes food and a shower.

That includes “ologists” as she calls them. Geologists and archeologists come to the camp in June and July and often do three-dimensional geologic mapping. She calls that the “big thing in Alaska right now.”

When asked if she would ever leave Alaska or consider retiring, she says she has always been curious by nature and she says sooner or later she will see something shiny over a hill.

In the meantime, whether it’s heating her tent with gravity-fed oil-drip stoves, pushing snow off the runway with a Bobcat skid-steer loader at 60 below, or hunting in complete darkness, Aikens is content with her lifestyle for now, just as it is.

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