Sue Aikens is one tough cookie on National Geographic Channel’s Emmy-nominated hit, Life Below Zero — risking her life and sometimes ruining her body to maintain the solitary Alaskan lifestyle she loves at her Kavik River Camp 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
But you’d be hard pressed to find a more charming coffee date and conversationalist when Aikens does venture down from the 49th state, which she did to take part in a January press tour.
I found her relaxing with a pair of the show’s producers in a Pasadena hotel restaurant, enjoying her time in the warmer climes — and greeting reporters she knew with a hearty hug. Two-armed hugs — a pleasant surprise for those of us who’ve followed Aikens’ agonizing recovery from a ferocious snow machine accident in February 2015. And that after bouncing back from a horrific 2008 bear attack, before the show that made her famous even premiered.
When Season 4 debuts tonight, Aikens is business as usual, hoisting her rifle with ease as she and her fellow Alaskans brace for the coming freeze, plotting and replenishing food supplies and taking stock of what the wilderness might hold as winter bears down.
Here Aikens gives us hints at Season 4 of the Nat Geo hit, and talks her road to recovery, her bold new goals and how she “unplugged” her grandkids.
CGM: Look at you!
Sue Aikens: I know! Just 10 days ago, they worked on the rotator cuff and the AC joint, the elbow and the wrist. That was at the Mayo Clinic. The doctor looked at me and he says, “I don’t know how you heal so fast and so well.” I just said, “Well, I actually listen.” You know? At first, he was like, “We’ll do the surgery and two weeks later, you can go home.” I’m like, “Great!” Then I come back in for my 2-week checkup and he says, “Oh, no. Hell, no! You’re not going home.” I said, “What do you mean? You told me I could.” He says, “I watched the episodes! Oh, hell no!”
Foiled by your own show!
He said, “If an animal comes through the side of your tent, are you …?” I said, “I’ll take care of it.” He says, “The generator dies. Would you fix it?” I’m like, “Of course I would.” He says, “Then you can’t go home.” After they did the rotator cuff, this is the first time I can actually put up my own hair, so I’m really confident and antsy to get home now.
I bet. Because you almost had a limb-salvage type of injury more than just a repair.
Yeah, sort of, because originally it was the repair of the clavicle and the joint. I had three fractures and a break here [gestures to her right arm], crushed the joint, busted the clavicle. There was a lot of things wrong that people aren’t aware of. It’s just like another show that I won’t mention, but they live on a farm in southern Alaska and a gentleman fell off a cliff and got injured. There’s 55 broken bones involved. You don’t know the extent of something just by the quick snap.
So it just became far more engrossing than I think any of us really were aware that it was going to be — but my nature doesn’t stop me. It is so closely tied into that I have to be profitable to keep my lease with the state that, broken bones and all, I just went back up there.
CGM: Can you talk a little bit about what was going through your mind, knowing cameras were capturing the accident and what it might mean for the show moving forward?
SA: We were doing something entirely different when the injury happened; there just happened to be cameras rolling. But I don’t think that any of us were truly prepared for the longevity of the recovery. We repaired this [points to her right arm]. But I happen to be allergic to titanium. It didn’t hold. We go in again. The reaction from the allergy to the titanium set in motion the breakage of the bone, so it broke again, in four pieces. They tried to fix it. Finally, the Mayo Clinic stepped in and said, “I think we can help you.” That’s where they ended up taking the hip bone to make new bones here and redo the joint.
It worked out to be really, really good. Really positive. The thing that is different for me now is I have actual strength. The doctor says, in due time, I can take a shot on [the right]shoulder again. Not for a while. So I’m teaching myself everything on the left side. I may as well just continue that. I’m right-handed. Right-eye dominant, so if something goes, “Rawwwr!” through the wall at me, I may swing my gun up [to the right], but I’m trying to train myself to do this.
CGM: You’ve said that this particular accident taught you fear.
CGM: But with fear comes resilience and knowledge — it can be useful. Has that been your experience?
SA: There’s resilience, enlightenment and you actually broaden your horizons, because you’ve lifted yourself above the level of ignorance you were at before.
I was describing to somebody last night: This injury happened February 18th of last year, so you’ve got almost 10 months where I have had nothing but people tell me what I cannot do. I don’t usually dwell in such a negative place, but the doctors, people that’ll remain nameless, all “You can’t do this. Doctor says you can’t. You can’t do this. You’re not healthy enough.” It’s been a whole 10 months of, “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.”
In December, I decided a birthday present to me was I told myself, “In 6 months, I will not be where I am today. I’ll be better.” Now it’s 5 months. Then it’ll be 4 months. I put on a lot of weight because I couldn’t exercise. Not so much that I was eating incorrectly — although there’s a lot more foods that I’m not used to — but I’ll be going back into Kavik again the middle of this month. My mindset is forward thinking and fast thinking and growth. When I go back in, it’s going to be construction, growth.
CGM: Season 4 arrives in April. Goals you’re working on? Things you can tease … with these two sitting here?
SA: What are my goals? I’m finishing the alternative energy plan. Every day is not guaranteed, so I want to get it done. I’ve always said I wanted to be the first green camp in the middle of the oilfields. That’ll be completed in July, so I have to get a few more things ready. There are safety issues. I want to build a crosswind runway, so now I have to educate myself on how do you go from being an overweight housewife [laughs] to planning and constructing a runway? I’m looking forward.
That’s part of the injury — where I had a whole year of everything beating me down, saying, “You can’t.” It just naturally got my resilient side to say, “Well, I can’t do that but watch out, f–kers. This is what I am going to do.”
CGM: Has it evolved your mindset from a business standpoint, as well? Have you started to consider more partnerships, collaborations, things like that?
SA: There are things that I am doing that are — while they may seem crazy and “Who does that?” — when I complete the first phase of crazy, then you’ll see. That one crazy adventure now opens up a world of “I don’t have to dead-lift it anymore and I can absolutely expand what I’m doing. I am making it easier in the long run by ‘I’m about to something extremely unique now!’”
It’s the way I have to do it. It’s something that normally maybe an oil company or somebody like some huge corporation will go, “Oh, yeah. We need to do this.” But on a tiny scale, for me. I’m so challenge-driven. If you tell me I can’t, then I’m going to work my hardest to prove you wrong. Even if I didn’t want to do it before. [Laughs]
Same thing with going 100 percent green. You bring up to the oil companies in Alaska, “Why don’t you just use wind and solar? and they go, “You can’t do that up here.” I may be in my mid-50s, but I’m proving them wrong. This whole next venture goes along the same lines. I’ve asked and I’ve asked and I’ve asked for some help from a few of my neighbors to get a few things accomplished. That hasn’t been popular, so now my nose is in the air. You know, little kid, “I’m going to go do it myself!” [Laughs] It’s a lot, but if I can accomplish that, then I’ve just opened up an amazing world that I can play in and make things that much better and that much safer, that much more secure. I’ve gained longevity.”
You have a very devoted fan base — the home fries. What’s it like when you realize you’re filming something that might possibly freak them out?
That is one thing that has taken something to get used to. I am quite open with the home fries and everything, but now I can’t spoil what they’re going to see later. That adds a little dynamic to everything that I’m not used to. If I go and do this crazy thing, I’m used to taking pictures of it, throwing it on them, going, “Oh, my God! Look what I just did! This was so silly! I only have one arm hanging up out of the ice. Ooh!” You know? Now I have to wait, and then a year later, they’re like, “Why didn’t you say something?” The home-fry revolution is evolving too!
What do you hear most often from them?
Definitely they’re like, “Don’t do anything silly!”
Yes, exactly. And it’s like trying to mother your most errant, rambunctious child. It’s like having the child from Home Alone and saying, “Just sit still. We’re going to be at the airport.” But they definitely care. They feel — and I feel — very vested in them, too. It’s a unique relationship that we have. There are a few home fries that have personal things that come up in their lives and they get a little home-fry donation that helps them out. There are unique situations that develop — but by the same token, they’re there to support me. It’s an interesting dynamic.
This last year, while I was recovering, I was feeling I did not get to post as much as I would like. I dropped off just simply because there was a lot of the year I did not have the use of my right arm. And I don’t think these guys wanted to show every episode where I’m in a sling or I can’t use it, either. There’s only so many times you want to hear, “Oh, Sue’s going to have her shoulder done again.” I keep them updated but I don’t want to dwell on it. I don’t want to dwell on the negativity.
Given your level of ingenuity, I’m betting your “downtime” was not spent watching soaps and shoe shopping online …
No. My time down healing has not been wasted. It’s been educating myself on how to build bridges and runways. It’s been, how do I put together ? I obviously can’t afford a new piece of equipment. The big equipment companies want to support men and not females because that’s who they sell to, so it’s like, “Well, then fine. I’ll find one.” That’s what I’m doing — and I don’t know how to work on them, but I’m learning. Even when I couldn’t do it myself, I had my grandson.
How are the grandkids?
They’re doing good! My daughter wanted to get back to an Alaskan lifestyle — she experienced it as a child but not as an adult — so they’re in the cabin that the squatters were in. We’ve been rebuilding it since July of last year. It’s vastly different now. It’s totally off the grid, so the kids had to unplug.
For his homeschooling, my grandson is learning how to trap. That’s what he wanted to do, so I showed him how to set traps. Now he’s got an old snow machine and fixed it up. He had to do chores to earn enough points, which he could trade in for dollars with grandma, and then he can purchase things. He bought that and that’s how he’s doing his traplining and checking and learning about animals.
And I have another person that buys furs, so that’s what he’s doing, too. It doesn’t matter as kids learn. They can tan it incorrectly, but they’ll still get top dollar, because they’re trying. So, he’s setting up his own money. This year, he’s going to be 15! He is felling trees right now — I showed him how to pick out and fell trees — so he’s going to be building himself his own log cabin. At 15, he talked to his mom and said, “I’m not leaving the family, but I think I need my own space as a young man.”
So I showed him — how do you pick a tree to make your own cabin? What size cabin do you want? You’re definitely going to be tiny-home living — because he’s also now 6’4″ and he’s got a 40-inch chest and a mustache. Testosterone hit him like a freight train. [Laughs]
And the granddaughter, she wants to learn how to dogsled, so she’s got four dogs to start and we’re building her little sled. She’s got friends of mine — Aliy Zirkle, some of the bigger female names in female racing — that she’s going to learn from. There’s some teenage girls that are just amazing that do the junior Iditarod, so she’s going to be learning.
You unplug the kids and then re-plug them into something that they can do and have pride in!
New episodes of Life Below Zero Season 4 air Thursday nights at 9/8CT on National Geographic Channel.