“Life Below Zero” hit a new milestone as it aired its 150th episode on 1 January 2021 on the National Geographic Channel, having premiered on 19 August 2013 with the “End of the Road” episode. This was quite an impressive feat, despite the many Alaska-based shows on television indicating that its target audience had not yet reached the saturation point. The viewers continued to anticipate each episode season after season, as the producers pushed the boundaries of reality shows to offer fresh and better content.
The cast and their stories
This BBC Studios-produced show features people living off the grid in often freezing temperatures in the remote part of the Alaskan wilderness. Close to the Arctic Circle, winter is long and very cold, while summer is short and cool, with each day a challenge having to acquire the resources vital to their survival before the brutal winter sets in, and taking on the wildlife in the process. They face danger day in and day out whatever the season may be, so they are no ordinary people for choosing this way of life.
When you live life on the grid and problems arise, you either have to fix it, or die. The season finale of #LifeBelowZero: Next Generation airs tonight at 8/7c on National Geographic. pic.twitter.com/sI0I9xcxS4
— Life Below Zero (@LifeBelowZeroTV) April 20, 2021
Sue Aikens (2013-present)
‘People get afraid of break-ins. My break-in involves teeth, claws and a hell of a lot of bad weather.’ It sounded dramatic but this was real for 58-year-old Sue who lived in the middle of grizzly bear territory, 200 miles or 320kms north of the Arctic Circle, for about 20 years. She owned and operated a ‘twisted’ bed and breakfast called the Kavik River Camp, located 80 miles or 130kms from the closest road. She could only lease land on the North Slope, and to live there, she had to run a business.
The nearest city was Fairbanks, 500 miles from her place, so she was really isolated, with people coming in from just June to September. Hunters, scientific researchers, and tourists who wanted to experience the Arctic life stayed at her camp, as she offered logistical support. For the rest of the year she lived alone, and enjoyed it too, saying ‘I thrive on the challenge. I crave extreme isolation.’ The only access to her camp was a small airstrip, but she had an internet connection so she could communicate with other people and run her business. Amazon ran deliveries on Fairbanks and a bush plane delivered supplies to her.
With grizzlies as her neighbors, it was likely that she would get up close and personal with one. In 2007, a juvenile male bear caught her off guard and almost killed her, but she managed to shoot it, and called the troopers; however, she had to stitch her wounds as she waited for 10 days before help reached her. It was not her last encounter with a bear, nor was it the only danger she had to protect herself from.
Surviving and coping with whatever challenges life threw at her was something she learned at a young age. Sue was born in Chicago and lived from place to place until in 1975 when she was 12 and her mother left her father, and they moved to a village 80km north of Fairbanks, where she was then left to fend for herself. She got over feeling sorry for herself after a while, then learned to deal with her situation by thinking of it as an adventure. An Alaskan resident gave her a rifle and some bullets and wished her the best! She learned to become self-sufficient, but felt sad after she made her first kill as she said, ‘Animals were my friends but they had to also become my food, and I had to quickly learn to separate the two.’
Sue had two marriages – her second husband passed away after they were together for 17 years. Her two children were married, and they got together every year and had this ritual of talking about things she said or did that they didn’t like, and things that are great.
In 2018, she said that the government took away her lease and gave her a temporary permit when they opened up the Arctic National Wildlife Rescue to commerce and drilling. Sue had no idea how long she could run her business.
Chip and Agnes Hailstone (2013-present)
Edward “Chip” Hailstone was born in Montana, and was 19 when he went to Alaska in 1988 for a visit, but never left. Agnes was born in Noovrik and belonged to the Inupiak Tribe. The couple was married in 1992 and have five daughters together; she also had two boys from a previous marriage. Their children were home-schooled then later sent to a local high school. They lived 19 miles or 30kms north of the Arctic Circle along the Kobuk River in a settlement with a population of 600. The biggest city in Northwest Alaska was 42 miles, 65kms from their place, and the means of transport was through a snowmobile or boat. They fished and hunted for food and bartered them for other supplies that they needed.
Raising a family was not easy in the wilderness, as they lived off the land and had to contend with the wildlife in the area and the freezing cold. Agnes was raised in this kind of environment, and was all too aware of the dangers, having lost her brother and mother into the ice. Chip said, ‘You’ve got to remember the country can eat you just as quickly as you can eat anything from the country.’
Andy Bassich (2013-present)
He was born in Washington DC and raised in Wheaton, Maryland. Although he established a carpentry business after matriculating in 1976 from John F. Kennedy High School, he moved to Alaska in 1980. He became a musher, and worked extra hard to ensure that his 25 sled dogs had enough food to eat by catching and preparing over 2,500 salmon each year. Andy also has a survival training school and a musher school.
He and his first wife, Kate Rorke, lived in a cabin he constructed near the Yukon River that was 120 miles, or 200kms south of the Arctic Circle. Access to and from their home was through the river by boat or by snowmobile when the ice was thick enough.
In 2009, a house-sized floating ice block was carried by the Yukon River 10 miles, 16kms down river in Eagle, which caused floodwater to build up behind it. Before they knew it, they were waist-deep in icy cold water as ‘Yukon breached its banks and merged with Ford Lake.’ As the water continued to rise, Andy had to quickly devise a way to save his dogs by loading them on the long johnboat; unfortunately, some drowned. When the water receded, Andy, who was given the nickname, “MacGyver,” led the recovery effort as the Alaska Native settlement was destroyed.
In 2015, Kate claimed that she was mentally and physically abused, but endured it all hoping things would get better. However, they gotten worse over the years, and she decided to leave after 10 years of living in the Alaskan wilderness with him. Their divorce was finalized in 2016.
In 2018, Andy sustained a hip injury while trying ‘to move his snowmobile that was stuck in the snow.’ It became life-threatening as the infection reached the muscle and bone, so he had to receive treatment in Florida.
After being away from home for six months, he returned and brought his girlfriend, Denise, with him. She was a trauma nurse at the center he was receiving treatment in, although the two first met years prior to this when she was on a canoe trip with a Boys Scout troop. Having been raised on a farm in Canada, she understood and adapted to Andy’s subsistence lifestyle. It was tough for Andy as he was still on crutches, but with the help of Denise, they got things done.
Jessie Holmes (2015-present)
He hailed from Alabama, then worked as a carpenter for three years in Montana before moving to Alaska in 2004, where he initially stayed in Eagle, then later set up his cabin in Nenana in the Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area, using his carpentry skills to build his new home. Jessie worked as a musher with 38 dogs, and has been competing at the “Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race” since 2016 and won a few times including Rookie of the Year with the prize money of over $25,000 in 2018’s long-distance race. His goal every summer was to catch 3,000 salmon fish for his sled dogs, and in winter, he went fur trapping.
Ricko DeWilde (2018-present)
Ricko, a subsistence hunter and Native American activist, grew up 100 miles upriver from Huslia. His father, who moved to Alaska from San Francisco, met and married his mother, a Koyukon Athabaskan who was born and raised in Alaska. He built cabins in areas where they could hunt, fish, and gather food depending on the season, while she kept them warm. Ricko and his 13 siblings were taught how to survive off the land, and know the importance of the Athabaskan way of life. They were home-schooled, so he only attended public school for his senior year. The family went to Huslia every spring to get their supplies, and it felt surreal to him as life there was very different from what he was used to.
However, he really experienced culture shock when he moved to Fairbanks, and his transition to urban society was difficult. Young and impressionable, he hung out with the wrong crowd and became a drug addict. He only managed to turn his life around after being imprisoned for two years on drug possession charges.
Ricko said he would go to his hometown every fall to hunt for the elders, and stayed at the cabin he grew up in. He would also bring his own family out there so he could teach his kids their Native traditions.
His clothing apparel, Hydz, was inspired by the reaction to the hoodies he presented during the gift-giving part of the memorial potlatch for his grandmother, parents and sister in 2007. The designs that showed the beauty and strength of wildlife impressed the natives.
Ricko was passionate about sharing his love of nature, and teaching others to take care of Mother Earth. He’s used YouTube as his platform since 2011, which had amassed around seven million views, and this led the way for him to be cast in the show.
What happened to the cast: “Life Below Zero” deaths
Only those who had adapted well to the Alaskan wilderness and practiced caution would get to see another day, as one mistake could mean the end of even an experienced hunter.
Each episode showed how dangerous it was for the people who followed the subsistence hunting lifestyle in an unforgiving environment, and the show kept the viewers on the edge of their seats regarding who survived and who didn’t. Some viewers assumed that people no longer seen on the reality show had died, as they were in a “kill or be killed” situation living in the wild, but not so.
Sue Aikins had several close calls, and saw everything around her as a potential threat that some fans gave the show the nickname “What’s Killing Sue Today?” Every incident seemed to be a lot more dramatic than it seemed, so that many believed that the producers kept her doing crazy stuff for the show. According to Sue, a BBC crew of three or four would come to her camp and film her. ‘Nothing is scripted. There’s enough real stuff that happens that we don’t need to invent it.’
However, in a lawsuit she filed against BBC Productions in 2017, she accused the producers, particularly Aaron Mellman, of demanding that she drive a snow machine at 60mph across a frozen river, which was dangerous with the ice covered in “overflow.”
As a result, she was thrown from the vehicle when it hit an ice heave, and sustained serious injuries including a broken collarbone, but the crew allegedly called for an airlift to land miles from the crash as they drove her six to seven miles in 20 below zero temperatures for better footage. It was filmed in February 2015, and aired starting from June of that year. Although her contract stated that she assumed all risks of personal injury including death with her participation in the series, she said she had no option but to follow the demands of the producer, even as she argued with him and expressed concern for her safety, as their agreement included that she ‘would not hamper or delay the production schedule.’
Chip was said to be missing in action during the 10th season, and fans feared the worst. However, he was serving out his 15-month sentence starting in 2017 at the Anchorage Correctional Complex, after being found guilty of two counts of providing false information, and two counts of perjury regarding an incident that occurred in July 2011.
His children, Jonathan Carter and Tinmiaq, were among those arrested by state troopers Bitz and Young for being involved in a fight. While they were being processed at the public safety building, Chip and Agnes arrived and confronted the troopers, and it ended with Bitz having to restrain Tinmiaq as it was believed she was about to strike him in the chest. Chip claimed that the trooper physically assaulted his 17-year-old daughter, and wanted him charged for that. He also said that they feared for their lives as Bitz had his hand on his gun. He later sent an email and swore under oath with these accusations. However, the jury heard audio recordings of the incident and decided against him. Agnes had to take care of the family while he was incarcerated.
Glenn Villeneuve, who was part of the cast from 2013 suddenly stopped appearing in the show in 2019. The producers renewed his contract for a year and filmed him for an episode, then nothing more was heard from them until he sent them an e-mail after five months to ask them about it, and was informed that they had no more plans for him.
"Life Below Zero" Agnes Hailstone, She Hunts, fishes, skins animals, builds homes, makes clothing and raised 7 children. Awesome Woman! pic.twitter.com/omYUElwPev
— Deborah Browne (@Nephys) February 15, 2018
He said he was always pushing for stories that didn’t fit in with the concept the producers had for him, so this might have been the reason why they’re no longer interested. It seemed that he was difficult to work with, and a producer told him that he would have fired him if he could. He once told a cameraman while they were up on the mountain at night to leave, so a helicopter came to get him.
Capturing the struggles and triumphs of the residents was also dangerous for the crew as they sustained injuries and had close calls with the wildlife in the freezing cold.
Some said that the magic happens during post-production, as they made each scene more appealing to the viewers. How the stories were told naturally fell on the producers, editors, crew, and cinematographers, but great content also depended on the cast and how they lived their life. “Life Below Zero” scored 11 Emmy nominations and five wins.