Seeing Susan Aikens in "Life Below Zero," the new National Geographic Channel reality series about enduring Alaska, it's hard to fathom that she was once a child of Chicago's northwest suburbs. Aikens, who for 11 years has run the Kavik River Camp near the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, seems so at home in her parka and her remote outpost that it's hard to imagine her anywhere else.
"I am the last frontier," says Aikens, a plain-spoken 49-year-old who says visitors need to respect Alaska or pay the price. "I tell people, 'If you're gonna act like a pork chop, you'll be a pork chop.' Some poor son of a bitch wants to go out there without a weapon, I'm not gonna cry about it. I'll pick up the body pieces and send 'em home, but that's the end of my involvement with it."
Now, after appearances on "Sarah Palin's Alaska" and "Flying Wild Alaska," Aikens is a featured player in the 49th state's burgeoning reality-show industry. The new series' first two episodes (9 p.m. Sundays) featured Aikens after a surgery to help her recover from a grizzly bear attack. She returned to camp to discover much of her life-giving fuel supply had been swiped.
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Aikens survived that scare — "obviously, I'm talking to you, and I'm not a Sue-sicle, so it was resolved" — and others. At the end of the winter, she bought the camp from the company she worked for, and says she would be happy to have people visit to see the Northern Lights, bird-watch, hunt or just get away (kavikrivercamp.com).
Via satellite and VOIP, I talked to Aikens about life — suburban and remote — the lower 48's fascination with Alaska and Alaska's code of self-reliance. An edited version of our conversation follows.
Q: How did a nice Chicago girl end up living at the edge of the world?
A: I was born at Holy Family Hospital, Mount Prospect, and the last place I lived was Palatine. Then my mother, in the late '60s, early '70s, she was leaving my father, and apparently whatever went on between the two of them, she felt Alaska was about as far as she could go. So at about 2 o'clock in the morning, my mom walked into the different bedrooms and tossed a paper Dominick's sack at us and said, "Pack one bag. You're moving to Alaska." And at 3 in the morning we took off.
Q: Wow. How old were you when you left Palatine?
A: There were two separate times. One was not as permanent a move, and that was in the late '60s. And then 1975, '76 was the permanent move. I was 11 or 12. From there I was living just north of Fairbanks a ways. You go from a being a suburban Chicago kid with all the expectations and the driving life force that is Chicago, and you suddenly (are) put in a situation where you've got bears crawling up your hind side. There's never one moment where I ever thought ill of my mother for doing that. Something unique must have happened between my mother and my father for that situation to have evolved. But if I hadn't gone through what I did, I wouldn't be what I am now.
Q: So from the point you moved to Alaska, give me the 60-second biography that leads to you being a caretaker at this remote camp.
A: Sixty seconds. You're funny.
Q: All right, 120.
A: OK. (Pause.) It'll take me more than 60 seconds to think about it. My mother, after we got up there, removed herself from my life for quite a while. And as a very young child, that was difficult. But there was an old Alaskan sourdough who was there through the old days. And he looked at me and said, "You better learn how to hunt, girl, or you're gonna die." He handed me a rifle and some bullets, and that was that. (His attitude was) we really don't give a (care) whether one or the other makes it, but here's your tools, figure it out. And I did that. Even in Chicago I was in an accelerated learning program, so I wasn't the dullest cookie in the box, and it didn't take me much time to realize that school was in the way of where I needed to be in life. I needed to get a job, I needed to make money, and I needed to get the hell out of the city. I got back to living life on my terms.
Q: But you did have a family.
A: I married a couple of people. The first one died of brain cancer, and the second one, we were together for 17 years. He tried it in Alaska and that was too much for him, how I lived. And I flourished, he didn't. So, you're married, you make it go. I went down to Oregon, and I tried it his way. We ended up giggling one night. He looked at me and said, "You know, I'm more John Wayne. You're more Grizzly Adams. I love you to death, but we're gonna choke each other." We remained best of friends till the day he passed away. And we interacted. We had children together (a daughter, 29, and a son, 25). Both kids are down there in the lower world.
Q: "The lower world." I like that.
A: If you're an Alaskan, if somebody says you're going to the States, well, we know you're going to the lower world. Or if you're a Fairbanksian and you say you're headed to California, we know you actually mean Anchorage.
Q: Tell me why you think Alaska has become such fertile territory for reality TV shows.
A: I don't watch all that much TV. However, I think that the majority of people, they have signed on for a lifestyle that puts them in a vehicle for so many hours a day getting to a job. They've agreed to sell their time on the planet for, let's say, $9 an hour pay. With that pay, there's so many burdens. They are enslaved, to a point where all the dreams they had of, 'Booyah, I'm gonna do this when I grow up,' are now burdens where, "I have to do this to trade-off (for) having my 2.2 kids and a car." So you look at the psyche of Alaska and what that represents, it is a danger, a freedom, and you have a few people, maybe like myself — although there's nobody like me — but there is a mentality that says, "Authority, (bleep) you. I'm doing this." And you can accept the challenges that life actually gives you.
Q: How did you manage to read my thoughts?
A: (Laughs.) I can only go with how I feel about things.
Q: How did you come to be a TV star?
A: At this point, I don't see myself as a TV star, but thank you for the compliment. I was approached. People came out. One of them I knew from being on a different show. And they talked to me and they wanted to see what I did and how I did it. I like my privacy, but I don't mind sharing it as long as it's tastefully done. From what I have seen, some reality shows appear that they force a dangerous situation, or they have you say something totally ridiculous that you'd never say even if you got paid to. This show, I found, I have respect for because it showed what I was actually doing. I smoke cigars, I've been known to swill a single-malt Scotch, and I swear a lot. And they didn't try to change that. It was 90 below zero, 90-mile-an-hour winds, and I'm out there laughing and doing my (stuff).'Life Below Zero'
9 p.m. Sundays, National Geographic Channel
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