A Leadership Letter From the Alaska Outback

May 05, 2021

Letter from a Census Taker in the Alaska Outback

Trying not to be too gloomy given the fact that the weather here has rained pretty much every day since July 3rd, and kept temperatures in the 50's. I am sure those of you in 108F areas are not boo-hooing my lack of summer, but believe me, no summer at all is a little on the depressing side.
So ok let's get to the fun stuff: bears breaking into pizza delivery cars and the man who got punched by a bear they say are a result of our bears being hungry due to the lack of salmon in the streams this year. I'm thinking it's just the 7th sign of the Apocalypse but what do I know. Strangely there really are no salmon in the streams this year.
Being a supervisor in the census has been nothing if not an exercise in patience as the government tries to count its constituents. The census is written into the Constitution that it has to be performed every 10 years. The fact that it falls this year, of all years, proves fact is stranger than fiction.
So a few days ago I flew to Klawock (Prince of Wales Island) in a little Cessna and from there got in a 14 ft skiff to go out to Marble Island to do a count. I was told there were 5 houses. Back at the turn of the century a marble quarry operated there (hence the name) which was run by the Vermont Marble Company, then the biggest marble company in the world. Who knew? (Sit down you Vermonters, you knew I'm sure.)
Anyway, pretty much 90% of all the marble in bank and state buildings on the west coast was the result of the Vermont Marble Company running this quarry, taking out what came to be known as Tokeen marble. Well the buildings have long since grown back into the landscape, but I was excited to go out there anyway.
First little shack we come to, here comes what looks like a wee leprechaun running down the dock waving his hands and pointing to the left. Apparently our fine craft is heading for the rocks so we back out and try again from the left. He grabs our bow line and looks at me. "I'm from the census," I say as I hop gracefully off the boat. (Uh, sure) "What are you afraid of?" he pipes, pointing to my mask. "I have to wear it, gov't regulation sir." "I'm 82," says Jack Be Nimble, "And you ought to know that that whole thing is a hoax." "Of course it is," I chortle, slapping my little friend on the back. "But what can I do? Now, how many of you live here?" "Just me." "Just you?" (We're on an island an hour from Klawock which isn't exactly fortified with services and it's just him.) "Well, I got my dog." "OK, 1 it is. Got any neighbors?" "Yeah Rudy, but to get to him you got to go back out in the cove, on accounta them rocks, go out around them islands and come in the lagoon on the far side there, you'll see his house set back in the woods but he ain't got no dock like I do, you'll have to wade in at low tide." Joy.
Low tide's not for a couple more hours. "Were you here for the 2010 Census?" I ask. "Yep. But they didn't come." "Were you here for the 2000 census?" "Yep. But they didn't come then either." "When did they last come?" "1980." "So you all haven't been counted since 1980?" "Yep. Reagan. He cared. Them was good days." Them was good days. Of course Reagan didn't actually take office till '81, but I didn't suffer the man with details. We just filled out his form and chatted about the weather: "Worst and coldest summer in 60 years!" No joke.
It's not like I don't appreciate the job, I do. It's a great job. But I've been putting in 70 to 90 hour weeks the last month and I'm kinda tired. You see, when it comes to the census, there's a reason people don't get counted. It's just too much trouble. I'm the only supervisor in Southeast Alaska who has seen to it that either me or my enumerators get to every block assigned to us. No matter how hard, no matter how far. Everyone else just uses proxies, often by phone. By phone!!???!!! As a result, the maps are all wrong and people like my little Reagan friend haven't been counted since 1980. It's always something.
So please, fill out your Census form. There's still time. It is important. You can do it online with your little census code that they hung on your door or sent you in the mail. 
OK, well my next gig starts tomorrow (Dall Island, Blanket Island and Heceta) and I have to get packed up. I've attached a slide show via youtube of a few pictures I got on my travels which I thought were cool.  I hope you like it.

Be good, Be well, Be counted!


Marybeth Shannon is a Census Taker Supervisor in Juneau Alaska. She's also my sister. We get letters like this one from Marybeth fairly often. A great reminder that the US is very big and very beautiful. And that we humans are, one from the other, as different as snowflakes.