Agnes Hailstone became famous all around the world in 2013, when she appeared in the highly acclaimed award-winning documentary TV series by BBC Studios that airs on National Geographic channel, entitled “Life Below Zero.” In 2022, this show is still a one-of-a-kind cinematographic achievement, staying miles ahead of the competition, if any even exists.
The series depicts the everyday and seasonal pursuits of subsistence hunters surviving off the land in what many would deem the most hostile Alaskan wilderness, far from civilization, electricity, plumbing, an internet connection, and all the luxuries of modern living. The idea for the show had been around for a long time, but it used to be logistically impossible to maintain a filming crew in abject isolation.
It follows seven different stories at once, showing how different hunters employ varying methods to stay afloat throughout the year’s harshest months. Sue Aikens is the show’s protagonist in a way – a lone woman living in the Kavik River camp, which has only one resident. There’s also the Hailstone power-couple, of whom Agnes is definitely more revered. Glenn Villeneuve, Jessie Holmes, Andy Bassich, Erick and Martha Mae Salitan, and Ricko DeWilde make up the remainder of the main cast.
“Life Below Zero” is by all means a fantastic visual experience, tailored carefully by a veteran crew in abysmal filming conditions. Of course, such efforts didn’t go unnoticed – the show has eight Primetime Emmy Awards and eight more nominations. It won its first in 2015, in the Outstanding Cinematography for a Reality Program category, and again every year from 2018 to 2022. In 2017 it also won the award in the Outstanding Picture Editing for an Unstructured Reality Program category.
The northern brood
One very particular fact about Agnes Hailstone is that she has literally never crossed Alaska’s borders, as well as that she is the only cast member who belongs to the Iñupiat native population. Together with the Inuits and Yupiks, the Iñupiats represent the three subarctic ethnic groups. This is to say that Agnes’ ancestors have been living the same way for thousands of years, which makes her daily routine much more natural to follow compared to the other cast members.
Alongside her husband Chip Hailstone and their five children, Agnes lives within a family of seven. It’s a strange concept for the contemporary mind to grasp that children could be raised in such unforgiving conditions, but with a better look it becomes clear just how different the Hailstone youngsters are.
For example, all of their children receive some sort of a hunting aid on their birthdays, ranging from traps to actual firearms with live rounds. They are taught how to earn their livelihood very early on, and can often be seen helping their parents around the house, sometimes even during hunts. It’s particularly easy for Agnes to teach her daughters the wild path, as she has been raised the exact same way.
Iriqtaq, their oldest daughter, already has a child of her own – a son named Wade who was born in 2016. Quitan and Caroline are both now of adult age, while Mary is still in high school, and Tinmiaq is young as well. The married couple and almost all of their daughters live together, right on the bank of the Kobuk River, in Noorvik, which is where the two met in 1988.
It took them an entire 10 years and one failed marriage on Agnes’ side to finally tie the knot, and it’s due to this former romance that Hailstone has two grown-up sons – Douglas J Carter and Johnathon Carter, of whom the former moved out years ago to pursue his own career.
Agnes was born on 14 June 1972, and named after Hurricane Agnes, which terrorized the US at that time. She had her first child at the age of 19, with her husband, at the time most commonly referred to as Carter. Chip met her when attending a getaway near Noorvik. He was actually only visiting Alaska, but liked it so much that he decided to stay there and not return home – he is originally from Kalispell, Montana USA. Chip’s birthplace has approximately 25,000 inhabitants, while less than 700 ‘neighbours’ live anywhere near Agnes’ hometown.
An uncontested survivalist
When it comes to knowing how to use weapons to ensure survival, Agnes outshines everyone else in the show, including her husband. She has been a skilled hunter since early childhood, which is evident to every viewer who has seen her on the prowl. She uses an antique Mosin Nagant 3-line rifle M1891, which is a Russian-made bolt-action rifle developed over a century ago. Although its uncontested reliability is attested by almost 40 million units having been produced, in 2022 there are way more efficient firearms for any scenario. Still, Agnes sticks to her old friend regardless. She also has an all-purpose knife that goes everywhere with her, and even has a name – Ulu.
Probably one of the most impressive things about Agnes is just how great of a marksman she is. Her ability to hit very distant targets without even using a scope is highly reminiscent of the deadliest sniper in history – Simo Häyhä – a man who achieved over 500 confirmed kills during WWII. Much like Simo, Agnes likes to dress in all white so as to distort her figure against the snowy background – she hunts alone, or with her husband, uses her old rifle, and yet there is no one better than her at what she does.
One instance where her skill shone brilliantly was when the couple were hunting a muskox. It was her first time going for this particular beast, so Chip was there to advise her. Still it was Agnes who took the shot, and even though she missed the first time, the second bullet struck with deadly accuracy, and quickly pacified the animal.
Interestingly, every new fan will notice the unconventional tattoo Agnes has on her chin, in the form of four vertical lines, the inner of which are thicker. In Iñupiat culture, this bodily marking means that she’s ready to face the wilderness and survive – she obtained hers as a mere teenager.
Agnes Hailstone rides her snow machine in Noorvik. Tune into a marathon of Life Below Zero today on National Geographic! #BestOfNatGeo
The Hailstones’ harmonious coexistence with nature
When interviewed by the crew of National Geographic about their survival routines, Chip said ‘The way the folks have done things here for thousands of years works. The Iñupiat figured out 10,000 years ago just what materials are best for what particular use, at what particular time of the year, and we just follow that pattern.’ One of the things that this statement implies is that the family will go out of their way to find predators too, as their fur can be extremely beneficial.
Agnes is seen taking a single shot at a running wolf, after a lengthy chase with a snowmobile. The animal is so far away when she fires the Mosin-Nagant that the camera can’t even spot it. Nevertheless, it’s a bullseye. She takes out her trusty knife and begins to skin the carcass, primarily slitting the animal’s throat, explaining ‘My mom taught me how to free the souls of hunters – animals that hunt. You have to free their soul, and just pretty much cut their throat, so their spirit can be lifted and go try again. Pretty much respect for the animal.’
The couple explain what they will use the wolf’s body for, adding that the teeth make pretty-looking charms when lined on a string. Chip added ‘We thank the wolf for the kindness of taking his skin. I’m gonna make use of what this guy is. The fur is a necessary survival item, and that’s really important here, especially at 40-50 below.’
Most people see riverbanks in the spring and summer as just that – scenery. However, for the unstoppable Alaskan duo, this means a lot more. They explain that what they’re doing is called ‘mammoth tusk hunting.’ Agnes said ‘This is the time of the year when you can actually walk down the beach and find things like a $10,000 piece of tusk, or a really nice tooth.’ Chip further clarified ‘We call it scouting. We’re looking for nice chunks of wood, nice pieces of bone, anything we can make artwork out of.’
In the video, they were actually lucky enough to find a massive mammoth tusk, which Agnes explained could later sell for as much as a few thousand dollars, depending on the customer’s order, and what she makes out of the crude piece they unearthed.
Chip and Agnes Hailstone subsistence hunt for rabbits in the winter season. New episodes of #LifeBelowZero and Next Generation air Tuesday night starting at 8/7c on National Geographic. pic.twitter.com/OQx3y9Q9c7
— Life Below Zero (@LifeBelowZeroTV) October 21, 2021
The discipline known as ‘Ugruk hunting’ is restricted to Alaskan natives only – Agnes chose her son John and daughter Tinmiaq to perform the activity that particular time. Her son quickly spotted and shot the ugruk, which is a young bearded seal. Agnes explained how they immediately separate the blubber from the meat when opening the carcass, as they both serve important purposes.
She said ‘Now that we’re done cutting up all the blubber and making tightened strips like this, all we do is put this on the porch. By the next couple of days it should be from blubber to oil.’ While most survivalists use oil for cooking or greasing, the Hailstones actually preserve it to flavor their meals. According to Agnes, ‘When we render down the blubber, we use it as our oil when we dip our frozen or dried foods in, and that’s usually a real delicacy, and it gives us energy. So, pretty much anything goes with seal oil up here.’
Chip has had a tumultuous past
Edward V. ‘Chip’ Hailstone has been the subject of rumor and controversy among fans for a long time. Many have doubted the real reasons as to why he stayed in Alaska, though there’s nothing of substance to be considered in these suspicions.
There was, however, a significant incident, the impact of which also affected the TV series itself. Chip was suddenly gone from the show’s 10th season, without the audience being notified as to why. That’s because the production team had every reason to stay hush-hush about it – Chip had a run-in with the law.
Chip was sentenced to 15 months of prison in July 2017. after being found guilty on two counts of perjury, as well as making false statements to the authorities. Four years prior, Chip accused an Alaskan police officer of physically assaulting Tinmiaq, the family’s eldest daughter. She was a minor at the time, which had serious implications for the officer.
The Hailstone patriarch once also claimed that a local from Noorvik threatened his daughter with a pointed rifle, following a disagreement with her stepbrother. While both of these situations sound alarming, Chip failed to produce evidence or witnesses for either claims and the only person who ended up in court was himself.
He lost the case and was initially sentenced to three years, but appealed and the sentence was halved. Chip has been optimistic since his release, showing appreciation for his family and great relief at finally returning to the real world. He said ‘I’ve got real rifles in my hand, I’m back to being my old self. I’m going to have a good time because I missed out on this last year.’
Agnes also gave her two cents on the matter, saying ‘The last 10 months have been pretty long and sad with Chip being gone. Food didn’t taste good, coffee didn’t taste good, but I got through it. I had my daughters with me and they’ve actually gone from walking behind me to walking by my side and hunting with me.’ She ended the comments with ‘We survived, we’ve improved, and now we’re just a lot stronger.’
What this meant in the show is that Agnes had to take care of all the hunting while the rest of the family did the chores she usually does around the house. Though initially challenging, this new way of surviving built an immense respect for Agnes among the viewers, whose expectations she greatly surpassed with a display of iron will, resourcefulness and resilience.
Agnes is as busy today as she was in 2013
“Life Below Zero” is still going full steam in 2022, with the 20th season expected to rear its head in the northern autumn of 2023, as per the customary release times of the show. Having been in almost every single episode of the series to date, only a few less than Sue herself, Agnes is bound to remain in the spotlight for as long as National Geographic continues its venture into the wild.