The 2020 census started months early in this remote Alaskan fishing village
Updated 8:36 PM ET, Tue January 21, 2020
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(CNN)It's so cold that the ground is frozen in Toksook Bay.
And for the census workers who've descended on this remote Alaskan fishing village, that's a good thing.
It means they'll have a chance to reach more people -- and count them.
For most Americans, the 2020 census won't begin for months. But for decades the decennial count has started early in Alaska, where large portions of the state aren't connected by roads and can have spotty mail service.
"Alaska's vast, sparsely settled areas traditionally are the first to be counted," the Census Bureau says. "Local census takers must get a head start while the frozen ground allows easier access to the remote areas with unique accessibility challenges."
And on Tuesday, they started in Toksook Bay -- where around 660 people live, where snowmobiles are a major form of transportation, and where 54-year-old Robert Pitka says this is the biggest event the community has seen in his lifetime.
As the tribal administrator for the Nunakauyak Traditional Council, Pitka has been working with federal officials for more than a year to prepare for the census, which he describes as a "history-making event" for Toksook Bay.
"I'm still trying to grasp how I can explain it," he says. "It's special."
The island village, where residents rely on subsistence fishing and hunting to survive, is located on the Bering Sea in southwest Alaska.
The Census director arrived wearing a parka to begin the count
Just how cold does it get in Toksook Bay?
The average high temperature in the region in January -- their coldest month -- is 12 degrees Fahrenheit.
"A cold spell hit in December before Christmas, and it's been cold since, over a month continuously," Pitka said. "Some days it'd be minus 10, minus 15, and the windchill factor is very low, very cold. Frostbite can occur in five minutes."
US Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham made a point of offering one piece of advice last week for anyone planning to travel there: Bring a heavy coat.
He arrived in Toksook Bay Tuesday afternoon wearing a blue parka. Weather had reportedly delayed his flight.
Census officials say Toksook Bay was selected to be the place where the first Americans are counted in 2020 because the majority of the village is Alaska Native -- about 94% of residents are Yup'ik -- and because the village is accessible by plane from the hub city of Bethel, Alaska, about 115 miles to the east.
Residents ride snowmobiles to get around
When the 2010 census began in Noorvik, Alaska, the director of the census traveled by dogsled to meet with residents and leaders there.