TOKSOOK BAY, Alaska – There are no restaurants in Toksook Bay, Alaska. No motels or movie theater, either. Or roads.
But the first Americans to be counted in the 2020 census live in this tiny town of 661 on the edge of the American expanse. Their homes are huddled together in a windswept Bering Sea village, painted vivid lime green, purple or neon blue to help distinguish the signs of life from a frigid white winterscape that makes it hard to tell where the frozen sea ends and the village begins.
The decennial U.S. census has started in rural Alaska, out of tradition and necessity, ever since the U.S. purchased the territory from Russia in 1867.
Once the spring thaw hits, the town empties because many residents scatter for traditional hunting and fishing grounds, and the frozen ground that in January makes it easier to get around by March turns to marsh that's difficult to traverse. The mail service is spotty and the internet connectivity unreliable, which makes door-to-door surveying important.
For those reasons, they have to start early here. The rest of the country, plus urban areas of Alaska such as Anchorage, will begin in mid-March.
Some of the biggest challenges to the count are especially difficult in Toksook Bay, one of a handful of villages on Nelson Island, which is about 500 miles west of Anchorage and accessible only by boat or plane.
Some people speak only Alaska Native languages such as Yup'ik, or speak one language but don't read it.
So local groups are bringing together translators and language experts to translate the census wording and intent so local community leaders could trust, understand and relay the importance of the census.
When the official count begins this week, the Census Bureau has hired four people to go door-to-door. At least two of them will be fluent in English and Yup'ik.
"The Number 1 barrier to getting an accurate count throughout Alaska is concern about privacy and confidentiality and an inherent distrust of the federal government," said Gabriel Layman, chairman of the Alaska Census Working Group.