Life Below Zero star Sue Aikens, survivor of the Alaskan wild

Sue Aikens, who stars in the Life Below Zero documentary, was left alone in Alaska by her mother when she was 12

Growing up alone in the wild, Sue Aikens learnt to hunt for food.
Growing up alone in the wild, Sue Aikens learnt to hunt for food. PHOTO: BBC WORLDWIDE

One of the stars of US documentary television series Life Below Zero, Sue Aikens, spent most of her childhood moving from place to place.

Born in Mount Prospect, a small village in Illinois, the 52-year-old has even lived on a tropical island, whose name she cannot remember, for over a year.

In 1975, her mother left her father and took off to Alaska with her, then 12, at 2am, with only a sock monkey toy, a Tigger doll and a few pairs of socks in a paper bag.

They settled in a village 80km north of Fairbanks, the largest city in interior Alaska. There, her mother left her alone to pursue her own life and the young girl had to learn to fend for herself in the cold wilderness.

And she thrived in the harsh conditions. In 2013, she joined five other Alaskans in Life Below Zero, which depicts the daily activities of subsistence hunters in some of the most remote parts of Alaska. The show is in its sixth season.

Aikens now runs Kavik River Camp, an exploration camp which provides accommodation in summer. Her second husband of 17 years is dead and her two children, aged 32 and 28, live elsewhere in the United States with their own families.

Aikens bought over the business from the previous owner after he offered her a caretaker position 14 years ago.

Before Life Below Zero, she made brief appearances in reality television series Sarah Palin's Alaska in 2010 (Palin was a former governor of Alaska and was the United States vice presidential candidate in 2008) and documentary series Flying Wild Alaska in 2011.

Though Aikens kept her nomadic lifestyle - she lived in Oregon with her late husband - Alaska's beauty and its promise of adventure always drew her back.

But living in isolation, where 83 grizzly bears tagged by the wildlife authorities roam freely, means that danger is unavoidable. In 2007, she was attacked by a male bear, which left her limbs severely injured.

Aikens takes it all in her stride. "You're never more alive than when you're on the edge," she says.

"Fear is not happiness, so don't let it control you. Don't miss the reason that you're in the wild to have fun just because you're worried about the wildlife."

1 How did you feel about the move to Alaska?

I am born an explorer and an adventurer, so the city life and its people were always difficult for me. And I loved and had a keen sense of belonging with the animals, so if I had not moved to Alaska, I would probably still try to find a way to get close to nature.

And you get what you get in life, so you either accept it or grow and change it to suit your needs. I've never been upset with my mother or others for how my life turned out. It has made me who I am and I like me very much.

2 With almost no parental guidance, how did you learn to become self-sufficient at a young age?

When you're by yourself, you just have to do things for yourself. I had a period of feeling sorry for myself, but I got over it and decided to see it as an adventure instead. And like we all do, I assess the environment and work within it.

A long-time Alaskan resident, whose name I think was Bill, handed me a rifle and some bullets, and that was that. The older Alaskans wish you the best, but you are what you make of yourself.

So when I made my first kill and fashioned myself some clothes and ate, I was sad, but also hungry and cold. Animals were my friends, but they had to also become my food, and I had to quickly learn to separate the two.

3 What are some of the challenges living in such harsh conditions?

Each year presents different challenges for me. It may be the weather, low food supplies or fuel shortage, which means that I have to ration heat.

But these challenges have helped keep me on my toes, grow and become excited about life.

The most important thing is to be prepared with at least two to three alternate packs of emergency supplies, such as food, fuel and dry clothes.

Have an exit strategy in place and always be honest about your limitations and when you need to call for backup.

4 Apart from the bear attack in 2007, did you have any other near-death experiences?

I used to have a dog team which I took to travel on the Arctic Ocean and the rivers. When I was crossing the ice once, an ocean rift formed and caved, taking half the team and sled up the heave, and I went into the water.

I felt so much horror and fear when I couldn't breathe due to the cold water. And I needed to scramble quickly to gain purchase before the heave slammed back down and crushed or drowned me and the dogs.

To this day, I'm still not comfortable on ice or water. And until I overcome this fear, I will be prone to accidents and injuries on ice and lakes, so I'm working on it.

5 Having lived in the wilderness, what do you think about modern technology and do you use it?

I use technology every day and a satellite system enables me to run Kavik Camp and communicate. In this social age, one must have the technological advances to run a business. That's the way it is.

I prefer simpler things such as reading, and making buttons and carvings out of bones when I'm free, but technology makes conversing with people easier at times.

It is usually for the convenience of others that I use it.

6 With barely any daylight in winter, how do you keep track of time and dates such as your birthday?

During my severe alone time in the winter, I don't really think of what day or time it is. I have come to find out that my body just creates a 36-hour day that I work from.

But I love my birthday. Birthdays and presents are huge to me, and in Kavik and Alaska, it's widely known when my birthday is.

I'll bake cakes and pies and share them with anyone who stops by, and have everyone bring a present and explain its "cool" factor.

It could be anything like a bubblegum wrapper, because essentially, the story is the gift I seek. That is a memory I can treasure while the physical item is less important.

7 Do you see yourself living the rest of your life in Alaska?

Alaska has been home for more than 40 years and I am happy here, but the world is a big toy box with so many places left for me to explore.

I will not limit myself to one location, but rather leave the door to my soul open for the new experiences that life has to share with me.

I may even return to my childhood dream of being a lighthouse keeper, lighting a little way in the world for people to see and to find their way home.

So there will definitely be more chapters in my life after this.

8 How would you like to be remembered?

To the people who remember me, I would like to bring a grin and a giggle to their faces.

And I want to leave behind hope and show them the possibilities and that there is a whole world out there for them to explore.

•Catch Sue Aikens on Life Below Zero on Tuesday at 10.45pm on BBC Earth (StarHub Channel 407).

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 22, 2016, with the headline Life Below Zero star Sue Aikens, survivor of the Alaskan wild. Subscribe