For those of you who thought that not being able to get a Caramel Frappuccino was the end of the world, imagine if you actually lived at the end of the world! You all know how I love survivor stories. After all, that’s what being Better Than Before is all about. To that end, I’d like to introduce you to the quintessential survivor, with the ultimate survival story—Sue Aikens. Sue is a tough-as-nails woman who gave up the comforts of not-so-rural Chicago to live off the grid in an isolated camp—way, way up north in the wilderness of Alaska. It truly puts things in perspective for people such as myself whose closest proximity to a bear is having eaten a bear claw for breakfast. (The Danish pastry, that is, not the actual appendage.) Not only did her story catch my eye, it did the National Geographic Channel who features her in their new weekly series, Life Below Zero.
Not satisfied with just moving to the country, or renting a summer house in say, the Hamptons, Sue became the sole resident of the Kavik River Camp, located a mere 197 miles NORTH of the Arctic Circle. Her address is a GPS coordinate, and her closest neighbor—besides 80 or so grizzlies within a 10-mile radius—is more than 300 miles south. As the series begins, she is returning home for the first time in months following surgery on a broken ankle, and is uncertain of the conditions she’ll find there. Has the camp been overrun by wildlife? Is it even accessible in the deep snow? Does she have the supplies to make it through another vicious winter?
“You know, people get afraid of break-ins,” says Sue. “My break-ins involves teeth, claws (again, the real ones) and a hell of a lot of bad weather.” To say nothing of the time she was once attacked by one of those bears, and ended up sewing up her own head because there was no one else around at the time.
How does she do it? Well, for the all the answers, you’ll have to watch the show. But here are the basics—how she ended up in Alaska, and how she manages to live day by day in a place where she gets supplies dropped off by helicopter every so often. (And not just because the Sunrise Highway to Montauk is so darn crowded on summer weekends.) I would of course consider this lifestyle myself, but I’m not sure I can convince the Lauder Companies to air lift Crème de la Mer to me on a steady basis.
As The Lawyer will attest, and much to his chagrin on occasion, I am rarely at a loss for word—or opinions. This augers well, of course, when I’m hosting my weekly CBS Radio show. But when I spoke to Sue recently, I was speechless. I let her do most of the talking with a small prompt here and there and an occasional, “Wow’” thrown in from time to time. I learned that the weather gets to be 100 degrees below in winter and more than a hundred above in the summer. And she doesn’t wear sunblock. (I assume she considers it only for wusses.) She makes her own aspirin from willow bark, concocts herbal teas from local flora, and even bakes cranberry nut bread. Furthermore, she does indeed brew Starbucks coffee each morning (so much for the first line of this column) and smokes a good cigar every now and then. I did find it ironic that I sometimes can’t get reception on my cellphone in New York City, yet here I was interviewing Sue so far up North that I was tempted to put my order in for Santa next Christmas, and she came in perfectly clearly.
JWM: How would you describe yourself, Sue?
S.A: I’m forty, fat and fabulous, and I wouldn’t change a thing.
How long have you been living and working at Kavik River Camp? How did you get started there?
This is my 11th year here. I was asked by the owner to come and be caretaker for the place, since he has known me for a long time and knew I did remote lifestyle work.
Have you always been an outdoor person? Was there a particular experience you had that spurred you into this lifestyle?
I have always enjoyed the outdoors and have had an affinity for animals. Being self-sufficient was and is incredibly important to me, and I tend to view the world with child-like glee. From preschool on, when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, my answer was and has always been “lighthouse keeper.” I have always craved extreme isolation.
What’s a typical day like for you during the winter?
There is no such thing as a typical day. Each and every day is driven by the challenge of the extreme conditions and weather. I have worked hard over the past decade to make my life simpler and keep solutions to potential problems quick at hand. It is a dark landscape with only the heartiest of predators encompassing my world in deep winter. I can never forget that I am a food group and not the top of the food chain here. But the biggest predators of all are my extreme living conditions and Mother Nature, which are just as daunting and dangerous as that wolf breathing at the tent wall, ready to scoop me up.
What would you say is your biggest daily/weekly challenge during that time?
That would have to be battling temps as low as –100°F and winds that can be over 100 miles an hour. My chores don’t wait and don’t care whether I can breathe or see. The wind wicks away much of my heat and I only have a thin fabric wall between me and the elements, so when those winds get bad it can be a huge challenge to keep my tent above freezing temperatures.
What is the scariest moment you’ve had? What is your proudest?
I don’t allow myself the luxury of emotions and to feel fear. I can register after the fact that a situation was potentially lethal or scary, but in the moment, it is just another situation that must be calculated and handled right then. For example, this winter, I was dropped off at the end of the runway with 900 pounds of gear, in city clothes, at –50°, a mile from my door. There were as many as six wolves circling me at 300 to 400 yards, and I had no rifle and less than a half mile of visibility with darkness approaching. I tried to carry 80 pounds at a time back to camp, but “flat light” conditions, which causes lack of visual depth perception and contrast recognition, and snow drifts as high as 20 feet, caused me to hit my wall, where you crumple up and have to look at admitting that it is just too much, too hard, and you can’t possibly do it. That fear of failure is possibly the scariest moment, when you have to admit that you cannot achieve a goal. To be done in by a heavy sack of potatoes when a bear didn’t accomplish it — that you and your inability to succeed would be your demise — that was scary. I have only hit my personal wall a few times in my life.
My proudest moment was when I made it to camp with the first load, got better gear and a gun strapped on, and it dawned on me that while I could admit I could not move 900 pounds all the way back to camp over a mile in those conditions, I could move that whole pile 10 feet. So, I assessed a bad deal and created a possibility for success. And that is what I did: I went back out and moved everything 10 feet at a time until I had it all to camp. It was dark when I was done eight hours later, and I was so exhausted I was throwing up along the way. BUT I DID IT.
What do you think would most surprise people about your lifestyle?
It seems to me that most people cannot get over the fact that I don’t get lonely. We are, as human beings, hard-wired to relate to things on an emotional level and I have worked hard to remove that equation from my life. It is how you look at life and register your own response that allows you to live well. And I love opera — that gets them every time.
What is one tool that you can’t live without?
My curiosity! The best tool in anyone’s arsenal is their own mindset. A wrench or a generator are certainly tools that enable us to repair and enhance our lives, but without that visceral and innate sense of awe, wonder and curiosity about what is around the bend or over the next ridge — and beyond my perceived limits — my life would not be what it is today.
Any final words of wisdom?
Smokey the Bear had it right: “Only you can prevent forest fires.” So, if your life is going up in smoke, stop dwelling on it, grab a pail of water, put that stuff out [Note: she didn’t use the word stuff’] and start truckin.’ Wonders await you if you just take a few steps out the door.