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The 2020 Count Began in Alaska

The 2020 Census begins by counting people in remote Alaskan villages and communities in January to account for travel challenges in the spring months.

A woman leaves a small post office.


File this away, trivia players: The first home counted in the 2020 Census was in Toksook Bay, a rural Alaskan village on the Bering Sea.

The count officially began there on Tuesday, January 21, about two months before the rest of the 50 U.S. states, the District of Columbia, and five U.S. territories (Puerto Rico, American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands) began responding. Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham helped kick things off, carrying on the tradition of the director personally counting the first home.

The early start was born out of necessity: While much of the U.S. will responded to the census in March and April, the spring months can pose challenges for counting people in approximately 220 remote villages and communities throughout Alaska.

“The March-April timeframe is right around what they call ‘breakup,’ which is when the snow begins to melt and the rivers that froze during the winter begin to thaw and break up,” said Wendy Hawley, who has helped oversee the count there. “It’s a really hard time to travel in rural Alaska.”

That’s because there are two primary ways to reach villages across the vast, sparsely settled areas in Alaska that aren’t connected by an official system of roads: by plane and by boat. The springtime is a tough middle ground, as the thawing ice can make it treacherous to land planes and navigate boats.

“For the most part, January-February is a safer time to travel,” Hawley said. “Or waiting until like June-July, which is not an option due to time constraints of getting the count to the president by December 31st.”

Hawley served as an area census manager for the decennial count in western Washington in 2000 and 2010. In 2010, her territory expanded to include Alaska, where the spring fishing seasons are another reason to conduct the count early.

“I would say there’s a huge amount of pride, amongst the team, amongst Alaskans. Knowing that you are setting off the whole census for the rest of the country, it’s pretty awesome. It’s pretty darn awesome."

— Wendy Hawley, 2010 Area Census Manager for Alaska

The January start also helps the Census Bureau reach people before they leave to go hunting and fishing, or for other warm-weather jobs. The departures can make it difficult to get an accurate count in the days leading up to April 1, the reference day for the 2020 Census. Census Bureau staff coordinate with village and community leaders to hire local census takers and coordinate the timing of visits. Locally employed census takers then conduct interviews in person.

Ten years ago, on January 25, 2010, Hawley helped the Census Bureau officially kick off the 2010 Census some 450 miles north of Toksook Bay, in Noorvik.

Primarily an Inupiat Eskimo community, with a 2010 population of 668, Noorvik rallied around the event. After flying into Noorvik’s airstrip, then-Census Bureau Director Robert Groves was escorted into town and began the count by interviewing the city’s oldest resident, a World War II veteran.

There was dancing, a big meal, and presentations from village leaders, state government officials, and Census Bureau leaders—all at the local high school, which doubled as a hotel for media representatives and other officials. The weather that week largely stayed above zero.

In the weeks that followed, census takers used snowmobiles and bush planes to reach the far corners of a state twice the size of Texas and four times the size of California. Ultimately, the 2010 Census counted 53,930 people in remote Alaska.

For Hawley, the memories remain vivid from her two years leading those efforts. She remembers looking out from a low-flying bush plane, watching caribou running. She remembers standing on the edge of Russian Mission, the first village she visited, and looking out at the vast tundra.

There was the interesting sight, outside one high school—not of bicycles chained up, or cars parked in a student lot, but of snowmobiles lined up. And there was the ice sculpture of Santa Claus, holding a sign that read, “Be Counted.”

“I would say there’s a huge amount of pride, amongst the team, amongst Alaskans,” Hawley said. “Knowing that you are setting off the whole census for the rest of the country, it’s pretty awesome. It’s pretty darn awesome."


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