Snowsleds, ATVs, skis used for census

Posted March 21, 2010, at 8:43 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:32 a.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Census workers are using snowmobiles, airplanes, all-terrain vehicles — even lobster boats — to visit the most far-flung, hidden-away dwellings when counting the nation’s populace.

Hand-delivering 2010 census questionnaires in the bush of Alaska, Maine’s North Woods and other isolated regions isn’t as simple as strolling up a front walk to a suburban home. To get to the more remote homes, census workers might fly over mountains or onto far-removed islands, four-wheel it through forests and contend with deep snow, bone-chilling temperatures and wildlife on the move.

In Maine, census workers will begin delivering forms this week by whatever means it takes — ATV, snowmobile, cross-country skis or snowshoes — to get to those hard-to-get-to places.

“You don’t know what you’re going to find,” said Danielle Forino, who will use her ATV to get to hunting, fishing and logging camps in the wilds of far northern Maine. “And I definitely anticipate coming across a lot of wildlife; the bears are coming out, so we have that to look forward to. And I’m not sure if the people will want to be bothered, but hopefully they’ll be cooperative.”

One woman rode horseback to get to homes for the 2000 census, said Rick Theriault, manager of the Census Bureau’s Bangor office for this year’s census. In Alaska, dog sleds are used.

“We do whatever it takes to get the job done,” Theriault said.

In all, 10-question census forms are being delivered to 134 million residences in the United States and Puerto Rico.

Census forms were mailed last week to 90 percent of the homes, about 120 million of them. Census workers are visiting the other 10 percent in person to deliver the forms in areas that don’t have regular mail service or “city-style” addresses to receive mail.

But only two places — much of Alaska and Maine’s North Woods — have been designated by the Census Bureau as requiring special travel arrangements to reach remote locations.

Those rural and sparsely populated areas, which contain less than 1 percent of all U.S. households, have irregular mail service and often cannot be reached by car.

Those people, like everybody else, still have to be counted.

Census officials in January kicked off the start of Census 2010 in one of those remote communities, the Inupiat Eskimo village of Noorvik, Alaska. To reach Noorvik, U.S. Census Bureau Director Robert Groves and other census officials flew to the village and then rode by dog sled to a local school for a launch ceremony.

Often, it’s the weather conditions — extreme cold, high winds, blizzards — that make the going tough.

The weather is cooperating so far this year in Alaska, but that wasn’t the case a decade ago when storms made it hard for census workers to get in and out of places.

“Ten years ago there were a number of [census workers] who were stranded for more than a week,” said Ruben Del Valle of the Census Bureau’s Alaska office.

Forino, who lives in Fort Kent, is a crew leader overseeing other census workers in northern Maine.

Her workers will drive 4-wheel-drive pickup trucks and Jeeps down dirt or gravel logging roads until they become impassable because of either snow or mud caused by the thaw, she said. At that point, they’ll get on snowmobiles or ATVs or put on snowshoes or skis to complete their work.

In some ways, it’s like a treasure hunt.

For the 2000 count, a Maine census worker rode his ATV 15 miles and then walked another five miles to get to a backwoods camp — where he was surprised to find people living, at that time of year, where the snow can still blow.

Once arriving at these remote destinations, census workers get down to the real purpose of their journey. They’ll question the residents and fill out the confidential census forms that will be returned to their office. They’ll also update census address and map information.

Nationwide, about 1 in 10 people may not participate in the population count with many saying they see little personal benefit from the government survey or have concerns that it may be intrusive, according to a Pew Research Center poll released last week.

Those concerns might be greater for people living off the beaten path. For some of them, there’s a good reason why they live far from civilization: They don’t want to be disturbed.

Theriault, though, remains optimistic.

“A lot of these ‘survivalists’ and stuff are constitutionalists,” Theriault said. “The census is outlined in the Constitution and most people — not all, but most — want to participate for that reason.”

Along Maine’s long ragged coastline, census workers have challenges beyond the wooded wilderness. They also have to check housing units on many of the state’s hundreds of islands.

Workers will get to the 15 year-round island communities by ferry or airplane. To check out others where people have summer camps and homes, census takers have been known to hire local boat owners, including lobstermen, or even use canoes.

“Anywhere there’s a building, we have to verify if they live there,” said Terry Drake, who is responsible for the census along much of Maine’s coast as manager of the bureau’s office in Augusta. “If they could live there, then we have to check.”

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