Since its premiere in 2013, the documentary-style series “Life Below Zero,” produced by BBC Studios and aired on the National Geographic Channel, has introduced viewers to a group of extraordinary individuals living in the vast, unforgiving wilderness of Alaska, as they grapple with the harsh realities of survival. At the center of it all is Sue Aikens, whose unconventional life and unbreakable spirit captivated audiences worldwide. In 2017, she took a bold step by filing a lawsuit against the production company, claiming mistreatment, and seeking justice for alleged breaches of contract.

Background on Sue Aikens:

Born in 1963, and originally from Mount Prospect, Chicago, Illinois, Susan “Sue” Aikens, experienced a nomadic childhood before settling in a village north of Fairbanks, Alaska. At a young age, she faced the adversity of being abandoned by her mother, and learned the importance of survival in the wild. Despite the challenges, Sue matriculated from high school at 13, driven by her determination to forge her own path.

Seeking extreme isolation and a deep connection with nature, Sue seized the chance to live somewhere in Alaska’s North Slope, in a place called Kavik River Camp, in the middle of grizzly bear territory, and only accessible by aircraft. It is a few miles from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and 500 miles, about 800kms from Fairbanks, the nearest city. The camp, which she transformed from an old oil camp, served as a base for nature enthusiasts, hunters, and scientific researchers from June to September. Sue took pride in providing logistical support, and maintaining a functioning outpost in a rather inhospitable environment.

Sue Aikens on “Life Below Zero”

National Geographic Channel’s “Life Below Zero” showcases a diverse group of people living in remote parts of Alaska year-round, each with their own unique stories, experiences, and lifestyles, allowing viewers to get a broader understanding of life there.

How did Sue Aikens become part of the show?

In 2011, viewers had a glimpse of Sue Aikens when her airstrip at Kavik River Camp was used by a pilot in Discovery Channel’s “Flying Wild Alaska,” a documentary series that highlighted the critical role of aviation in connecting remote communities. Its executive producer, Tommy Baynard, befriended Sue during the filming, and was fascinated by her unconventional lifestyle – that of a woman living and working alone in such an isolated and unforgiving place. Casting her to become part of “Life Below Zero” had become inevitable, when Tommy Baynard served as one of the executive producers in season one of the series.

Sue is as authentic as they come, and her personality is perfectly suited for a reality show, as it seems that she doesn’t have any reservations about sharing her thoughts and feelings. She said, ‘I think in pictures, so I try to describe how I live, how I feel, in colors, shapes and sounds. But I only have words, and a deathly stare.’ She cherished her solitude, but the producers got her to agree to do the TV series, because she said that they respected her for who she was, and didn’t make an attempt to change anything about her. Through extreme cold, isolation, and encounters with wild predators, Sue showcased her survival skills and her ability to thrive in a challenging environment. The series provided an in-depth look into her daily (to many) struggles, and highlighted her resourcefulness and commitment to staying alive.

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Sue Aikens’ allegations and lawsuit

“Life Below Zero” found itself at the center of a controversy, as Sue Aikens had taken legal action in 2017 against the people behind the show, suing the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and its subsidiaries including BBC Worldwide Reality Productions as well as Aaron Mellman, one of the producers of the show, and other individuals. She claimed multiple violations, including breach of contract, misrepresentation, and invasion of privacy. The alleged grievances raised questions about the ethics and responsibilities of reality TV production, and the well-being of its participants.

Here are the pertinent details regarding the case, based on Sue’s account of what happened:

BBC crew arrived at the camp

On 4 February 2015, a BBC film crew started arriving at Kavik River Camp for a filming assignment for season five of the show. The crew members included Producer Aaron Mellman, AMS safety agent Jerrod Styart, cameraman Michael Cheeseman, and an IT technician. Filming began the next day, focusing on capturing Sue Aikens performing various chores that exposed her to extreme cold temperatures for prolonged periods.

Despite the temperature dropping to a bone-chilling 72 degrees below zero, Producer Aaron disregarded Sue’s request to wear a facemask, insisting on getting her face on camera. As a result, Sue developed frostbite. Filming continued nearly every day, although she had to take breaks from working outdoors due to her condition. She reported the incident to Joseph “Joe” Litzinger and Lauren Dascher from BBC’s Episodic Development Department, as the show was co-owned by NatGeo and BBC. They assured her that her safety was their top priority, and advised her to temporarily stop filming to recover and heal; filming resumed after a few days.

Forced to abide by the producer’s demands

On the 18th of February, she was scheduled to go camping in what Sue referred to as the Kavik Forest. However, Producer Aaron Mellman changed the location of the camping site to a few miles downriver for better footage. He didn’t allow her to take an Argo, a covered and tracked vehicle, which could traverse soft ground and was less likely to get stuck due to sinking, and instead forced her to use a snow machine with a sled attached to it. On top of that, he prohibited her from bringing her old and frail dog, Ermine, with her, which distressed her, as she depended on Ermine for companionship and protection. An IT Tech and a cameraman accompanied her, while the producer and the AMS safety staff remained at the base. The producer came to visit the site to check the set-up but didn’t stay for filming.

Sue contacted Joe and Lauren again to express her anger at being commanded on what she could and could not do, including what type of vehicle to use for the filming sequences. However, it seemed that nothing came of it.

No regard for her safety

While camping out, Sue wanted to take her sled and her .410 shotgun to hunt for ptarmigan, her staple food source. As there were plenty of those birds in the area, she didn’t want to pass the opportunity to get her supply of meat and acquire those feathers. However, Producer Aaron didn’t want her to do that, and instead coerced her to pack up the campsite and go into an overflow. An argument ensued with the producer yelling at her as she was resistant to obeying his orders. She cried and they had to stop filming until she composed herself.

Sue eventually did things his way. As she was dismantling the tent, she asked for help because she was afraid that its metal part would hit her as it was being blown by the high winds. No one came to her aid after the producer threatened to fire anyone who would do that and reminded them that they worked for him and not her. Sue ended up getting hit in the head with a tent support, and this caused another confrontation with the producer.

Next, she was told to travel down the river on her snow machine and go into the overflow, which was dangerous and risky. An overflow is a term used to describe water flowing on top of a frozen river or stream. When exposed to the frigid air, only the surface freezes. Covered with snow, the thickness of the underlying slush varies as layer upon layer of water could flow on top. There was no way of knowing if it was thick enough for a person on a snow machine to safely cross, so it was best to avoid them. Sue suggested doing something similar but not as risky; however, he would have none of it, insisting that she ‘needed’ to do this, and after a long argument, she finally acquiesced. She was assured that once she performed this stunt, they would be done filming for this episode, and that the producer would leave the camp. Sue was also forced to say on camera that it was her idea to go through the overflow.

The crash

To prevent her snow machine from being caught under collapsing ice, Sue drove across an overflow at the speed of 60pmh. Unfortunately, she hit glare ice and went into a side slide that she couldn’t recover from, ultimately leading to a collision with an ice heave or a raised portion of ice. She was then thrown off her ride, and although she was conscious the whole time, she couldn’t move nor breathe well. Sue recalled hearing her bones snap and was unsure if a screwdriver in her pocket embedded itself in her, or if her firearm was lodged in her spine. The crew was just within 20 feet of the crash site, and someone asked if she was okay and she said no, telling them how she felt.

A safety person named Jarod approached her to assess her injuries, and she believed it was he who called BBC to inform them of the accident. Jonathan Paltin of BBC assumed that this was merely a simple report of an incident at the site, and Jarod had to call him a second time to make things clear that Sue was ‘injured badly.’ However, it appeared that they didn’t deem it serious enough to warrant a life flight or an air taxi for immediate pickup. According to Sue, BBC understood how badly hurt she was, but still insisted that she had to stay there a bit longer for the camera crew to get enough footage.

Filming continued despite her injuries

The producer was adamant in shooting more scenes of the crash site, and so they did. She informed them that she was sure that her collarbone was broken and perhaps her ribs and arm, and was in extreme pain at that time, feeling that she was going into shock, but told them that she would do what she could. Sue was in danger of getting hypothermia at 15 to 20 degrees below zero, because she was only wearing her long johns and a sports bra after her clothes were cut off to assess the extent of her injuries. Someone drove her back to Kavik River Camp, which was six to seven miles away, in a snow machine.

Fearing that her condition would worsen if she didn’t receive proper medical care immediately, the camera crew wanted to stop shooting. Michael Cheeseman, one of the cameramen, filmed himself stating how seriously injured Sue was, and that he only continued to shoot because the producer pressured him to do so.

Upon reaching her camp, she was still forced to walk toward the plane and no one gave her a ride because the producer threatened those who could help her that they would lose their jobs; he wanted a camera to capture how much she was hurting. The plane was at the far end of the runway, and after walking with difficulty for half a mile, it was only then that someone was given permission to assist her to reach the plane. She was first brought to a clinic in Deadhorse, Alaska, where x-rays of her injuries were taken, and several days later, she was flown to a hospital in Fairbanks. Sue later found out that BBC hadn’t approved sending an air ambulance for her, because of how much it would cost them.

The arguments along with everything that occurred that day were recorded on film. Sue claimed that the footage taken during that time was used to create a fictionalized version of the incident, and what happened afterward. It was aired in season five in the episode “The Crash” months after the accident was filmed.

The aftermath

Sue underwent multiple operations due to her injuries, resulting in chronic pain in her lower spine, leg and arm, as well as misalignment of her right clavicle. These injuries have led to significant scars and permanent disabilities, impacting her ability to sustain her lifestyle and work effectively at Kavik River Camp. She is unable to handle a rifle normally, which compromised her self-defense capabilities, making it challenging for her to venture into the wild tundra. She had to modify her firearms so that she could continue to hunt for her subsistence.

No choice

Many wondered why Sue had to follow what Producer Aaron wanted, instead of doing what she would normally do, considering that the show wasn’t supposed to be scripted. It turned out that she felt that she had no choice but to do what was asked of her based on the provisions of the Participant Agreement in the contract that she signed. It stated that she agreed to co-operate with the producer as well as participating in the production of the series in all phases. She also shouldn’t delay or hamper the production schedule. There was no provision in which she could refuse to do as directed by the producer, even in the event that she feared for her safety.

Unconscionable terms in the Participant Agreement

Based on the Participant Agreement, it stated in the Assumption Of Risks that Sue Aikens acknowledged that her participation in the TV series may involve engaging in hazardous activities, such as traveling in off-road vehicles during unpredictable or harsh weather conditions, using firearms, and encountering wild animals. Despite knowing the danger involved, she would voluntarily take part in these activities, and acknowledge that she may suffer injuries, which could lead to her death.  She would be responsible for obtaining the necessary insurance coverage, and agree not to hold any party involved to be liable.

In the Release Claims section, Sue Aikens agreed to unconditionally and irrevocably release Producer and Network or any person involved in the development, production, and distribution of the Series from any and all claims, demands, suits, and liabilities of whatever kind that was related to or arising from her participation in the Series.

As Sue entered into a contractual relationship with the defendants, she was said to be inexperienced in such matters, and wasn’t represented by any agent who could advise or counsel her. Furthermore, the language in a contract that removes liability from a party for intentional wrongs was said to be unconscionable and contrary to public policy.

BBC Reality Productions hasn’t issued any official statement regarding the matter. A spokesperson for the company claimed that she wasn’t aware of the lawsuit until KTUU, a TV station in Anchorage, Alaska,  reached out to her in 2017 for comment, so was unable to respond. Not much information was released on the status or result of the case, however, many believed that it’s been resolved. It appeared that Aaron Mellman was no longer part of the production – based on IMDB, his last work was in “Life Below Zero” in which he was the producer for some of the episodes aired in 2016. As for Sue Aikens, she remains committed to her life in the Alaskan wilderness, running Kavik River Camp, and it’s still being documented through the popular reality TV series.

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