If Sue Aikens from "Life Below Zero" was on "Survivor," I think she would win. She's full of one-liners and wilderness ingenuity. She lives at the Kavik River Camp, 500 miles north of Fairbanks, and except for the National Geographic Channel crews, she's mostly alone in the winter months.
Those who have watched "Life Below Zero" know Aikens' basic story. She grew up in Chicago, and one night in the early '70s, at 2 a.m., her mother handed her a paper bag and said, "pack a bag, you're moving to Alaska." She's been here since.
Aikens is the unofficial star of "Life Below Zero," a show about several people and families in rural Alaska who live mostly off the land. I'm guessing casting crews from the National Geographic Channel knew she'd be great on TV after seeing her on "Flying Wild Alaska" a few years ago. In a recent episode of "Life Below Zero," two pilots deliver her fuel for the winter and leave, and we see her go through the entire spectrum of human emotions. First she waves them off, relieved they accomplished their task in dicey weather. Then she cries, because she's alone (except for the camera crews) again. Then she does a happy dance for the exact same reason. She's not afraid to be scared, sad, happy or pissed off on TV.
When I interviewed Aikens over the phone, she told me that as a child she was asked what she wanted to be when she grew up and said, "lighthouse keeper," so running a remote camp in the Arctic is right up her alley. The Kavik River Camp serves as a stop for pilots and a destination for hunters, birders and adventurers wanting to experience the Arctic. One of the most interesting things about Aikens that isn't portrayed on the show is how connected to the rest of the world she actually is, thanks to a high-speed Internet connection. Aikens has fans whom she keeps in touch with through Facebook, whom she calls her "home fries."
"I hate to call them fans. I mean, the minute you put yourself on a pedestal, you better like falling from high places," said Aikens. "I'm just a fat chick on the tundra that people find something interesting about. They're all friends, they're just friends I haven't met yet."
Aikens' grandchildren occasionally come visit her at Kavik. Aikens asked her granddaughter, who was 7 or 8 years old the last time she visited, if she wanted to come back.
"Well, you know I love you, right? But I'm going to go visit Auntie Megan and Uncle Jesse because they like to shop and do mani-pedis," her granddaughter said. So Aikens' next trip away from camp will be to see her granddaughter and get a mani-pedi.
I asked Aikens if she's been portrayed accurately on "Life Below Zero."
"I mean, yeah, they show me swearing, smoking stogies and not brushing my hair for months on end," she said. She added that she's never been asked to do anything for TV that she wouldn't normally do.
Finally, one of her home fries wanted me to ask Aikens how she learned to be so handy, since on the show she frequently fixes things around the camp.
"The only thing I knew about diesel mechanics was how to bake bread," she said. "But I have an incredible curiosity, and all it's going to take is me reading, asking questions, trying and watching other people do it. And that's what I've done. I apply my Sue logic and then the laws of physics."
This interview gave me an idea. What if there was a "Survivor: Alaska Reality TV All-Stars" season? Imagine Sue Aikens, Dallas Seavey, the Hillstrand brothers and Atz Lee Kiltcher sitting around a fire at the tribal council with Jeff Probst. It would be money.
• Emily Fehrenbacher lives in Anchorage, where she reviews Alaska reality TV.