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Long miles, empty homes and private gates test census workers in Wisconsin Northwoods
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Long miles, empty homes and private gates test census workers in Wisconsin Northwoods

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PRESQUE ISLE — Fall along Highway B can be the prettiest of times.

The snaking roadway through northern Vilas County received a fresh coat of asphalt this year, providing a smooth gift to anglers towing boats to a favorite muskie lake, motorcyclists out for a cruise and those seeking out an Old Fashioned and deep-fried walleye at Zastrow’s Lynx Lake Lodge, its neon sign aglow since 1968.

The colors of the forest were in a crescendo when I visited a day after the Packer’s fan-less home opener. The maples, aspens and birch were bursting out and provided vibrant reflections off the ponds and the few lakes not obscured by the thick growth of trees that line the county road between Land O’Lakes and Presque Isle, just a few miles south of the Michigan border.

On this day I was not here to take in the colors or flail for an elusive muskie. Instead, it was to follow around Jack Klein, my regular Northwoods host of the past seven years, as he took on a side job with the U.S. Census Bureau to help fund snow tires for his new but slightly used Dodge Ram pickup.

His neighbor, Phil Curle, worked the same job, only his motivation was to stockpile money for kitchen appliances.

“One of the most important things in retirement is to stay busy and to stay mentally active. And this is a mental challenge,” Curle said of his part-time gig. ”I have met some wonderful people and more times than not the people have thanked me for doing what I’m doing. We’ve run into a lot of friendly people.”

Northwoods census

Classic white signs dot northern Wisconsin and help travelers find remote homes and businesses. This collection is near the intersection of highways B and M north of Boulder Junction in the town of Presque Isle.

This part of Wisconsin offers up a quintessential Up North experience with its lake homes, resorts, trails, small businesses and deer that keep left feet hovering over brakes. Bear are common here and occasionally a rouge moose wanders through. Pay attention around Boulder Junction. You may spot a white deer amid the pines or Kevin Gutjahr readying his Gooch’s A-One Bar & Grill for its reopening in the coming weeks after being destroyed by fire just over a year ago.

Different kind of work

Only doing census work in northern Wisconsin is a much different effort than undertaking the same task in Madison, Milwaukee, Wausau or, for that matter, cities like Eagle River, Park Falls and Hurley.

There can be miles between stops, long driveways that resemble little more than narrow logging roads and few people to speak with, since many of the residences here and in other tourist-centric areas of the state are seasonal homes, occupied for only a few months or even a few weeks out of the year. Klein and Curle were each issued iPhones that hold a database for their work and are used to call homeowners, many of whom live out of state. Only cell service can be spotty and often times requires driving to a known spot, miles out of the way, that offers up reliable reception.

Northwoods Census

Jack Klein, left, and his neighbor, Phil Curle, chat in Klein's driveway in the town of Presque Isle about the challenges of doing census work in northern Wisconsin. Homes can be far apart, on long, narrow and unimproved roads, and cell phone service is often spotty.

“You have a lot of phone issues up here. That’s probably the most challenging part. The rest is simple,” said Klein, who has found a bike trail parking lot along Highway M just north of Boulder Junction to be a reliable spot. “I like talking to people. And 99% of them are real friendly, even though they’ve already done their census at their primary residence.”

Curle and Klein each make $19 per hour with an extra $2.25 for work performed on a Sunday. They also get 57 cents per mile.

Catching stragglers

As part of its “Nonresponse Followup Operation,” the Census Bureau began sending workers in August to households that had not responded to the census. The operation was originally scheduled for between May 13 and July 31 but was pushed back to Aug. 11 through Sept. 30 due to COVID-19 concerns. According to the Census Bureau website, census takers are required to visit homes in which the bureau has gotten no response in online, mail or in-person attempts. If a family member is not home, census takers are required to leave a notice of their visit with information about how to respond online or by phone. They also can speak to neighbors who can serve as a proxy and answer a few basic questions. But neighbors here can be far and few between and in many cases have no idea about their neighbor’s residential status.

Northwoods census

Phil Curle has left behind many of these forms on homes this fall. They notify owners that a census worker has visited. Because of the number of vacation homes in northern Wisconsin, it can be difficult to make direct contact with people.

On Sept. 20, for example, Curle logged 94 miles on his Toyota Tundra in an attempt to visit 10 homes. He spoke to one person on the phone who had a seasonal home near Minocqua but lived in northern Illinois. One of his visits on that day was to a seasonal home deep in the woods off Highway 51 south of Hazelhurst, about 30 miles from Curle’s home in the town of Presque Isle. The driveway was gated with a cable, but as a census worker he was allowed to walk in. He found a camper trailer but no one around and marked it down as a seasonal property.

Later that day, he visited a home on Lynx Lake, but a hill down to the property gave Curle concerns so he got out and walked. There were two neighboring homes, but no one around.

Northwoods census

Jack Klein uses a stylus on his government-issued iPhone to enter data after failing to find an address near Oxbow Lake in northern Vilas County.

“The stairs had brush in front of it so I walked around to the front of the house on the lake side and it had the census packet from June hanging on the door,” said Curle. “I look for tire tracks to see if anybody has been there recently. And if you’re walking, I always keep an eye out for bear poop. If you find it you’ve got to turn around and leave.”

Working in retirement

Curle, who wears a Wrigley Field baseball cap, had a career in commercial lending in Elgin, Illinois, before building a home here in 2003. He has lived in northern Wisconsin full time since 2013.

Northwoods census

Phil Curle, left, and Jack Klein talk about census work in northern Wisconsin while sitting on Klein's front porch last month.

Klein, who was one of the first employees at New Glarus Brewing Co. back in the 1990s and later spent 10 years in maintenance with the Verona School District, bought property here with his wife, Sue, in 2011 and began living full-time in the Northwoods in 2013. He makes muskie baits in his spare time and grows his own mushrooms, and he and Sue, a retired art teacher, recently began raising a flock of six chickens, protected by an electric fence to keep prowling critters at bay.

Northwoods census

Cables across driveways are common but provide a sometime difficult choice for census workers, who are legally allowed to walk around the barricaded road. The distance to a specific home beyond the gate, however, can be unclear.

But on the day I tagged along for Jack’s census work, several addresses were behind a large metal gate in a private but remote housing development. He could have walked around the gate, but it would have meant another six or seven miles of walking to reach the homes he was assigned. Another property was near Oxbow Lake. Only Klein couldn’t locate the red-and-white fire number along East Bay Road.

“It’s happened before. There’ll be no address or maybe there’s not a fire number or you just can’t find it,” Klein said as he used a stylus to enter data into his government-issued iPhone. “I do get to meet some really interesting people when I do find people.”

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