Scottish Daily Mail

Wild ways of the real-life Revenant

...and what on earth do they make of her at the genteel Scottish Arctic Club in Edinburgh?

- By Emma Cowing

‘I knew he’d come back and finish it. So I shot him first’

SUE Aikens didn’t see the bear coming. It was only when he snatched her up and started throwing her around like a piece of meat that she realised she was being attacked by an eight foot grizzly. ‘ He dragged me into the tundra and pushed me. He’s extending his claws, he’s rolling me, twisting me, and I’m trying not to put any pressure on his claws because that’s a sign of engagement.

‘He put his jaws around my throat and he clamped down. You can still feel where his teeth went into my head at the top and bottom of the skull. He did this for a while, then charged me and rolled me around.’

Eight years later, Aikens shivers as she remembers that terrifying cold day in the Alaskan wilderness, late in the year. When the bear retreated, she crawled up the river bank to her camp. Her hips had been pulled out of their sockets and she was bleeding heavily from her head and arm.

‘I got back inside and radioed for help but was unsuccessf­ul. So I cleaned up my head and sewed it back together. Then I cinched my gun belt round my hips to try to keep my hips in their sockets, went back out and found the bear. I knew he’d come back and finish it the second time. So I shot him.’

Were you to look up the phrase ‘tough as old boots’ in the dictionary you might just find a picture of Aikens staring unblinking­ly back at you. At 51 years old, she lives 197 miles north of the Arctic Circle in a corner of Alaska so remote that it is 80 miles from the nearest road and 500 miles from another human being.

Her address is a GPS co-ordinate and her closest neighbours are the 83 bears that reside within a ten mile radius of the camp.

If her story brings to mind the current smash-hit Leonardo DiCaprio movie The Revenant, which tells the story of fur trapper Hugh Glass, left for dead after a bear attack, it is because her tale – featured in a new ten-part documentar­y series entitled Life Below Zero – might be even more remarkable.

Yet Aikens is also a mother and a grandmothe­r, a woman who likes bubble baths and pink woolly hats, enjoys manicures with her granddaugh­ter and who in her early 20s was a glamorous siren with a seductive smile and a mane of curls.

So what on earth is she doing here, living at the frozen edge of the world, with only the bears and the wolves for company?

She emits a loud cackle down the satellite phone from Kavik River Camp, which she runs as the world’s most remote B&B in the summer months.

‘I just love the solitude,’ she says. ‘I don’t ever wake up and tell myself “my ass looks fat in my jeans”. I don’t have that negative reinforcem­ent living a solitary lifestyle. I set my own boundaries. If I don’t know something, I learn it. I figure it out. And having that solitary lifestyle enables me to do it. Around every corner there’s a challenge.’

Her camp is basic, to say the least. She sustains her lifestyle by charging adventurou­s tourists $350 a night to stay during the summer, but still, there’s little in the way of elegant frills. Electricit­y runs from a generator and is unreliable – potentiall­y deadly when temperatur­es are often -40c, and the interior décor somewhat dominated by antlers and animal skulls.

Before setting foot outside each day, Aikens must scan the horizon for bears, wolves, wolverines and even polar bears, which have been known to wander into the area, and she carries a rifle with her everywhere she goes. As she is fond of saying, ‘some women collect shoes. I have bullets’.

‘I am a food group out here,’ she says. ‘And no matter how clean I keep the camp it’s always going to smell like food to a bear. Every time I open up a jar of peanut butter, ten miles away a bear just lifted his head going “Mmm. Got any jelly?”’

Not that there are many peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to go around at Kavik River Camp. Although she has basic supplies flown in several times a year and occasional­ly retreats to ‘the lower world’ for shopping, family visits and the odd mani-pedi with her grandchild­ren, she hunts much of her food herself. A typical breakfast chez Aikens may involve some freshly shot ptarmigan, while dinner is likely to involve caribou or even bear meat, if she has shot one recently.

‘I see myself sort of like a warden of this area. It’s about a third the size of California and I am the only resident. I’m trying to protect the eco system. I care about the animals. I hunt for the meat that I eat but I don’t take more than I’m going to use.’

Brash, loud and the teensiest bit sweary, one can only imagine what happened when Aikens pitched up in Edinburgh at her first meeting of the Scottish Arctic Club some ten years or so ago. A keen and active member of the club, Aikens has roots in Scotland – her grandfathe­r was from Linlithgow and she came to Scotland regularly as a young woman.

‘I used to come over more frequently than I do now,’ she says. ‘I love it. I’m hoping to be over this year to see my buddies.’

One Scottish Arctic Club member drily recalls a meeting Aikens attended a few years back, remarking ‘she was noticeable, put it that way’.

‘As a human being I know I throw a fairly big shadow,’ she says. ‘I can walk into a room and suck the oxygen out.’

After that bear attack eight years ago, Aikens lay in camp for ten days, waiting for help. The generator conked out and she could hear other bears outside dragging things around. She could hear the bears crushing skulls, she says, and imagined they would come crashing through the walls at any moment.

She had no food, no water and it was freezing cold. She thought she was going to die. It was only when a local pilot, who had circled the camp several times and failed to make contact, landed to investigat­e, that she was found and taken to hospital.

‘They cleaned me up and took X-rays, and said I had to go to Seattle f or spinal surgery. Seeing that through my children’s eyes was unique. It let me know that I’m fragile in their eyes. They know what I’m like, they grew up with me, but it was the first time they had really been, as adults, brushed with the possibilit­y that I might not be there forever. So that was a shock for them.’

Yet there was no question of her not returning to Kavik. She missed the tundra and the solitude, and even the family of Arctic foxes that come right up to the windows of her camp and sometimes venture inside to snooze on the sofa.

Are her family supportive of her living all the way up there, under such dangerous conditions?

‘ Well, they don’t really have a choice,’ she says stubbornly. ‘The grandkids are littler so I have a vested interest in trying to be on the planet longer for them but my children are adults now. The grandkids know never to ask grandma questions.

‘If you ask me what time it is I’ll tell you how to build a watch.’

Aikens grew up i n suburban Chicago and moved to Alaska with her mother at the age of 12 when her parents split.

‘If you were a young girl in the mid1960s and you were asked what you wanted to be when you grew up, the stock answer was always wife and mother, perhaps stewardess or nurse,’ she says. ‘But for me it was always the same. From three years old I wanted to be a lighthouse keeper. I craved that extreme isolation and adventure. Even when a tornado came down the street I’d be holding on to the fence with my feet off the ground, facing the storm.’

In the small Alaskan town of Fair- banks Aikens took to the outdoors way of life like a duck to water.

A family friend taught her how to hunt and shoot, telling her ‘you better learn how to hunt, girl, or you’re gonna die’, but her mother couldn’t settle.

‘She ended up leaving and living a different life,’ she says. ‘So it was really raising myself. And that was okay. While it’s not the way I would have scripted it as a child, if I hadn’t gone through what I did, I wouldn’t be what I am now.’

She is vague about her adult life before moving to Kavik 13 years ago. She will confess to having married twice and having a son and a daughter who both now have children of their own. Her first husband died of a brain tumour and her second husband left her for a younger woman. He, too, is now dead. She happily admits she is not easy to live with.

‘It may not be pleasant for any spouse I’ve been with,’ she says. ‘Two died to get away.’

Kavik then, with its solitude and its danger, is her own version of domestic bliss.

Not that the camp is completely without luxuries. Three years ago, after going a decade without a bath, she decided to build her own out of an old fish crate.

‘ What girl doesn’t dig bubble baths?’ she asks. ‘I don’t know why it took me ten years to figure out I could make a bath myself but I did and I was so proud of myself.

‘I only get to do it twice a year because it uses so much water but there’s nothing better than when the sun is coming up, there’s nobody else here, and I can kick the door open, light up a cigar, have a bubble bath and think “life is good”. That’s a cashmere moment in life.’

Her other great luxury is single malt whisky, and she always has a bottle of Laphroaig or Lagavulin on hand to warm her belly on the coldest Arctic nights.

Years on from her bear attack, she is still scared of her nearest neighbours. She has shot several bears over the years, using their meat to feed herself, and has changed the way the camp operates so that if a bear attacks again, she can radio for help more easily.

She now sleeps with a .44 pistol within reach of her bed and baseball bats are hidden throughout the camp as a last line of defence.

‘I’m very aware that I’m living in an area where a large chunk of the population wouldn’t mind having me as a snack,’ she says.

‘So if I react poorly, it’s not if the bears are going to attack – it’s when. And I don’t want something chewing on my head again.’

Life Below Zero premieres on Monday, January 25, at 10pm on Travel Channel.

‘I always craved extreme isolation and adventure’

 ??  ?? Tough: Sue Aikens, left, has been compared to Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant, top. Above, Aikens with grizzly bear claw
Tough: Sue Aikens, left, has been compared to Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant, top. Above, Aikens with grizzly bear claw

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