May 03, 2013

Q&A With Sue Aikens

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 a caretaker for the place, since he has known me for a long time and knew I did remote-lifestyle work.

Describe your life before Alaska.
I was born in Chicago and moved here at a young age. I don’t generally go into details on my past. Some business is my own and not the world’s.

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 childlike 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 predator 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 your biggest daily/weekly challenge is 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 alone in the winter? What is your proudest?
I don’t allow myself 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. I do not allow myself the luxury of emotions, as I feel it is the quickest way to go “bushy.” For example... this winter, I was dropped off at the end of a 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 admit 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.

But then 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. For example, I do not allow myself the luxury of feeling lonely; however, I do register that I live alone. I am never sad, but I register that I may not be particularly happy at the time. 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 could not live without, and why?
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.

What do you hope viewers will take away from watching you on this show?
For the peek into my life, I suppose that I hope viewers sense a value to their own ability to stay a curious, wide-eyed child of 5 years old, and that they recognize that there is beauty in the challenge of living a life less traveled. I can shoot an animal for the meat that I need, but also appreciate the beauty and failure when the animal gets away. There is not one aspect of life that you have to say “they” won’t let me do what I want. If they try, spit in their eye, grab your sack and show “them” that you can.

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 shit out and start truckin.’ Wonders await you if you take a few steps out the door.

If you could choose any other place in the world to live, where would it be and why?
I will be other places in my life. There is so much to see and do. An island in the South Seas? A remote station in Australia? A small town in the Midwest? Who knows. But when the shiny object catches my eye, this chick has to check it out.

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