The remote Alaskan outpost of Kavik River Camp, located 15 miles from the Arctic Ocean, 80 miles to the closest road, and 500 miles from the biggest city—Fairbanks—has a population of one; living Life Below Zero.
Two, if you include the dog.
Meet Sue Aikens, outdoorswoman, adventurer, survivor, hunter, angler, businesswoman, and, perhaps most of all, loner.
Aikens owns and operates the Kavik River Camp, one of the most remote bed and breakfast operations in the world. It sits 12 miles from the eastern border of the Artic National Wildlife Refuge and smack dab in the middle of grizzly bear territory.
From the beginning of June to the end of September, Aikens hosts eco-tourists, scientific researchers, hunters, hikers, birders, and anybody else seeking a getaway that oozes wildlife and remoteness.
The other eight months, Aikens lives alone, surviving freezing temperatures, high winds, sunless days, and the constant threat of grizzly bears. It’s worth noting that 83 collared grizzlies live within 10 miles of her camp, along with two or three times that many bears without collars, or so she claims.
It is a reclusive lifestyle, and one that is prominently featured in “Life Below Zero” on the National Geographic Channel. Its second season premiered Thursday night.
“I stay here because this is where I want to live,” Aikens, 50, told GrindTV Outdoor in a phone interview Wednesday. “I thrive on the challenge. I crave extreme isolation. I like myself. I crack myself up all the time, so I’m pretty cool to hang with …
“I enjoy the people and love to hear [their] stories. I appreciate it when they come in [during the tourist season], but I’m pretty yippy-skippy that it’s a limited engagement. I like people, but I just like to know that they’re also leaving.”
So what does she do in the offseason?
She fixes small equipment that has broken down. She maintains a small airstrip, which provides the only access to her camp. She collects water from a nearby river, since she has no running water. She does laundry by hand. She digs out of snow after storms; 17 feet fell one night last winter. She hunts and fishes to provide food for the winter.
“There’s always a list of things to do,” Aikens said. “If you ask any housewife on the planet, ‘Gee whiz, you don’t have a job, how in the world do you keep yourself occupied?’, they’ll hit you in the beak.”
All this, coupled with the harsh Arctic winters when temperatures dip to minus 60 and winds blow 60 mph, prompted National Geographic to feature her in “Life Below Zero.” A crew of three or four makes trips to Kavik River Camp to spend a brief time with Aikens, filming her day. Nothing is scripted.
“There’s enough real stuff that happens that we don’t need to invent it,” she said. “That’s one of my rules for doing it … Some episodes might not be as exciting as the next, but it’s what really happens.”
What happens is not always pleasant.
Six years ago, long before the show, Aikens was attacked by a juvenile grizzly bear near the river. She said it was an “alpha push,” that the male bear wanted her territory.
“I had to sew my own head together, and my arm, and before my hips popped out, I went across the river, found the bear, shot him, called the trooper, and there I lay for 10 days,” Aikens explained.
She was finally taken to Fairbanks for treatment, and later to the Lower 48 for hip and spinal surgery.
Another time, a bear decided to crash through the wall of her tent while she slept, sending her with her rifle scurrying up the stairs in the buff with the bear on her heels. She shot at the bear, which ran off with one of her rubber boots.
“In the morning, I found her ear but never did find my boot,” she said.
Nowadays she sleeps with a .44 pistol within reach of her bed. Baseball bats are hidden throughout the camp “as the last line of defense.”
When visitors arrive, Aikens instructs them to slowly scan the horizon in a 360-degree turn every time they’re out. Aikens usually is wearing a pair of binoculars because you never know when trouble will come, she said.
“It doesn’t mean I live in fear of it coming,” she said. “I respect that it’s better at sneaking up than I am.”
Besides grizzly bears, the region is home to wolves, wolverines, foxes, caribou (all the herds of caribou migrate through the valley, incidentally), dall sheep, and moose.
Those seeking an escape from civilization might find the wilderness of Kavik River Camp inviting. The camp hosts 10 to 20 people at a time but can accommodate many more.
In the offseason, of course, it’s just Sue Aikens and her new dog, Ermine, which is just the way she likes it.
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