Leonardo DiCaprio is currently being showered with plaudits for his guts-and-all performance in The Revenant, a snowbound epic about a 19th century fur-trapper who is left for dead after being mauled by a bear.
21st century B&B owner Sue Aikens can empathise. She’s one of the stars of Life Below Zero – a new series about the hardy souls who live in the wilderness of Alaska, battling the elements and hunting their own food. Aikens gets more grizzlies than guests visiting – and a few years ago one of them attacked her while she was collecting water.
We asked her how she’s still around to tell the tale and what it’s like living hundreds of miles away from civilisation…
Where exactly do you live in Alaska?
Even on my driving licence, my address is a GPS coordinate: 69.4 north by 146.54 west. Go to the top of Alaska on the ice road, turn right, grab a bush plane, fly an hour east and I’m right at the boundary to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and 15 miles from the Arctic ocean.
How would you describe your home – a hunting camp?
Hunters do come up during the month of August but that leaves 11 other months. I call it a twisted bed and breakfast. I don’t care why you want to be in the Arctic. I will cook you breakfast, drink single malt with you and tell you stories.
Have you had many encounters with bears?
My closest neighbours all have fur and claws. I have 83 grizzlies within 10 miles of camp and that’s just how many the authorities have tagged.
What went wrong on the day you were attacked?
I have to use both hands to pump water out of the river so I put down my rifle. A juvenile male had been hiding and he snatched me up, dragged me into the tundra and did what I call an alpha push: they take their jaws, wrap them around your head – I can still feel where the teeth went into the skull – and they toss you around.
Sue Aikens in action
Why an alpha push?
They see me as a bear: I’m protecting my territory and they want to steal it so the chicks see what a badass bear he is. If you put any back pressure on the claws, that’s a rule of engagement meaning: I’ll take you on, let’s go. So while all of this is happening, you have to maintain your composure. You don’t play dead because being limp as a noodle will put pressure on the claws. You must roll with it, you must try to maintain your composure.
He charged me a few more times before disappearing over the bank. That’s my clue: he’s taking me territory and if I don’t finish the job, he will. Had it been an older bear, I would not be here.
Mauled Sue Vs angry bear… What did you do?
I made my way back to the dining hall and called for help on the air-to-ground [radio]. I left a message on the troopers’ answer-phone: “Sue at Kavik had been attacked by a bear and needs help”. They never showed up. Later, I found out that they thought the bear had ransacked camp but hadn’t hurt me because I sounded so calm.
My hips had been torn out of my sockets so I cinched them together with my gun-belt, sewed up my head and my arm, went out and shot the bear. On the way back to camp, my hips gave out so I had to drag myself back. And then I laid there for 10 days until somebody found me.
Who found you?
A pilot. There aren’t many people up here but you get in tight with your pilot friends because they are gonna save my bacon when it needs saving. It’s a symbiotic relationship because I’m the only resident and the only gas station in an area about a third of the size of California.
Why did it take so long?
I could hear the plane flying over but it was foggy so he couldn’t see. He could make out that the fuel shed was open because I had been working out that way before I went to get the water. When I didn’t answer the air-to-ground, he assumed I was out working and took off. A few days later I could hear him flying over again. When I didn’t answer, he left a message: “Good Lord, you’re trapped in the fog. Hope you’re ok.”
On the 10th day, the fog had cleared and he saw that nothing had changed – the fuel shed was still open, the equipment was still out – so he knew something was wrong. He landed, found me, helped clean me up because I’ had to perform my bodily functions. The next day he flew me all the way to Fairbanks who sent me to Portland for spinal surgery.
Friends not fur coats; Arctic foxes
Did you consider not going back?
I don’t ever think: Gee, I’m not gonna go back just because it’s scary. If it’s scary, I just need to have a few more B vitamins and lift a few more weights. I cannot – will not – let fear rule me.
Only if I reacted poorly when another bear challenged me or in another threatening situation. If I react poorly, I have no business being out there: I’m a liability instead of an asset. But when the next bear did charge me, I immediately dropped into protection mode and dealt with the situation like I should.
So can those who dare stay in your camp in winter as well as summer?
Usually the last person I see is late August or September and the next person I see is the following June. I screen extremely heavily in winter because the conditions can be so severe. My thermometer pegs out at 100 below zero [minus 73 degrees celsius] – that’s where it stops registering – and every winter I peg out at least once.
I tell people: I’m not king; weather is king. If you want to come here in the middle of winter, I may have a blizzard that sets in for a month.
Do you get much daylight in winter?
It’s dark 24 hours a day but I’ve been there so many years that it feels natural. And when the moon and the Northern Lights are blaring, it makes the snow glow so there is light.
How do you buy supplies?
I hunt the meat that I eat. I know what plants are edible and medicinal. The doctor is 500 miles away, so I make my own medicine to treat simple maladies and do my own stitches when I need to. And if you don’t order in supplies by August you’re not going to get them. So if sugar is important to you, order it in ahead of time.
Do you have any rules?
I have a bonehead clause: If I think you’re a bonehead, you’re not going to stay long.
They only other rule is: Don’t shoot or harm a fox. Foxes are friends, not fur coats. Because I’ve been here so long, they’re my little buddies. It’s illegal to feed a predator so I don’t do that. I am clumsy sometimes – I’ve been known to drop a few things – but I try not to actively feed them.
Sue Aikens’ twisted B&B, Kavik River Camp, costs $350 per person per night. Visit her website for details (occasionally a moose or bear scratches her satellite dish and she can’t get on the internet).
Live Below Zero will be shown on the Travel Channel on 25th January at 10pm (Freeview 42, Sky 249, Freesat 150, Virgin 292)