The next time you complain about the price of milk at your local market — or having to dash there to get it — consider what Life Below Zero star Sue Aikens endures to provide the grocery staple to the hunters, scientists and other outdoor enthusiasts she hosts at her “unique and twisted bed-and-breakfast,” Kavik River Camp, 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
“As a business, I have to have everything for the people that stay there be store-bought, brought-in, authorized and cleared foods,” Aikens explains. “So I have to plan for maybe 50 people a day. How much milk am I going to need? A gallon of milk is 10 bucks at the grocery store. I have to pay someone 50 bucks an hour to shop for it, and then I have to pay $5,000 for the plane to bring it up and $300 a day to keep it cold. By the time you’re drinking that glass of milk, it’s over $20 a person.”
Welcome to life in the wilds of Alaska’s North Slope — and just one of the many mind-blowing reasons fans relish the National Geographic Channel series, which documents the daily travails of seven Alaskan residents (just one of them native) living life on their own terms in America’s last frontier. The show’s second season returns this month with all-new episodes that see the “challenge-driven” Aikens working with the tundra’s naturally hydroponic nature to find a viable means of growing fresh food and continuing to cope with the physical fallout of her near-fatal 2008 bear attack.
“I don’t like to talk about that a whole lot, because I don’t like that in my upfront memory,” says Aikens, who, upon her return to Kavik — weakened, alone, unarmed and deposited a mile from her camp’s impassable runway on a minus-50-degree night — spent hours lugging 900 pounds of gear back to camp, 20 pounds at a time. “But after that, the body has things that just don’t work right — like this winter, [after] simple snow shoveling and a simple fall, the disks that they never fixed in the workman’s comp case. I still have many bulging disks, but they, as workers’ comp does, want you to fight with them about it. I was like ‘@#$% you. I’m going home.’
“So I have things that I have to be careful of, because it’s not if a bear will charge me again. It’s when. How am I going to react? If I freeze up at all, then I have no right to be up there. I’m a liability. Or if I get seriously injured again. At that point, then I have to make a change.”
While Aikens has no plans to give up the uber-solitary life that she says was her calling since birth, she knows that it may not be feasible forever. So she is learning to enjoy the spoils of life in the Lower 48, such as nightly sunsets, spa days with her granddaughter and a dip in a Beverly Hills hotel pool with castmate Kate Bassich while doing press for the show.
Even if the last one took a little more getting used to than she figured.
“To stand in water and not be afraid to lose body parts — I was like, ‘Look at me!’” Aikens crows. “But Kate and I went in at the same time and we were like, ‘Ooh ooh ooh, it’s cold! And people were like, ‘But you’re the Life Below Zero chicks!’”
Life Below Zero: The Thaw airs Tuesdays at 9/8CT on National Geographic Channel beginning Nov. 4
Photos: National Geographic Channel