Ham radio aficionados set up broadcast from Blue Lake
BY Sarah smith
A handful of radio operators from the Twin Cities and Alexandria spent the weekend ensconced on an old Blue Lake resort engaging in what has become almost an ancient art of communications.
But Field Day, a national and annual event sponsored by the 150,000 member Amateur Radio Relay League, has gone high tech.
And to attest to its longevity, ham radio operators are up and running when cellular communications break down in mass emergencies, typified by several disasters such as Superstorm Sandy. They also proved their mettle during Hurricane Katrina.
Surrounded by wires looping antennas through the Hubbard County forest, the men managed to contact all 50 states and Puerto Rico and were still trying to snag a passing satellite Sunday afternoon during the emergency exercise some have compared to an all-out competition.
The low-key group on Blue Lake, who’ve all been coming up here for years, was more matter-of-fact than competitive.
“We’re trying to contact a passing satellite,” said Ron Dohmen as he thumbed the Morse code onto a hanging radio contraption while Kirk Pengelly tried to rotate an actual antenna wired to it.
They bunk at the former Blue Hollow Resort, which is now owned by Dohmen’s in-laws.
Inside a small building, set up on a ping pong table, Alan Dewey enters information onto a laptop, one of several in the room.
Vlad Michtchenko sits at the other computer station, tracking data.
The annual exercise tests Ham radio operators’ abilities to set up and operate makeshift stations under emergency conditions.
Ham radios still operate all over the world, but the Blue Lake crew says it’s getting harder and harder to attract young people to the hobby.
The men take shifts overnight during the 24-hour exercise in which they are awarded points for contacting as many operators and stations as possible.
“We’re two or three times the age of a college freshman,” Dohmen observed ryly. They don’t stay up all night to cram for a test.
Last year more than 30,000 amateur radio operators participated in Field Day, which is limited to United States hams.
They gather on the fourth weekend in June of every year to reach out and touch as many stations, bands and operators as possible. Like Blue Lake, they set up in remote locations.
The men were a bit sheepish that they were likely needed more back in the Twin Cities, where weekend storms knocked out power to 500,000 and cell phone communications.
ARRL has been around a century and has grown into “worldwide community of licensed operators using the airwaves with every conceivable means of communications technology,” the group website says.
“The Amateur Radio frequencies are the last remaining place in the usable radio spectrum where you as an individual can develop and experiment with wireless communications. Hams not only can make and modify their equipment, but can create whole new ways to do things,” according to the website.
And when cell towers go down, ham radios go to work.
“It gets real crowded,” Dohmen said of the static, voices and chaos coming over the airwaves.
But he laughed that he and his compatriots had to pack in the dark when they left the Twin Cities and they forgot one crucial item – the signs so strangers could find them.
Lightning from an early morning storm Sunday in Hubbard County didn’t cripple them like it did Twin Cities residents. In 10 minutes, they were up and running again.
They were transmitting data, conversations and other information via Morse code, voice, teletype.
“Lightning just isn’t good” for ham radios, Dohmen said.
“The goal is to improvise what you can do under extreme conditions,” Pengelly said.
The number of people contacted is your success rate. Bonus points are given for contacting satellites, which eluded the Blue Lake group.
“They come by real fast,” Pengelly observed.
As young men, they said they were fascinated by the ability to contact people across the country or around the world via ham radios.
“It was really exciting,” to talk to strangers across the world, Dohmen reminisced. “Now everybody has a cell phone.”
Pengelly said at international events, it’s not unusual to make 150 contacts in other countries.
The Blue Lake vegetation in the forest only hampered the higher frequency lines, but caused no signal interference otherwise.
The Blue Lake crew spoke of satellite AMSAT AO7, an old friend that went dead for several years, then came alive unexpectedly. Unfortunately, AMSAT AO7 couldn’t relay its adventures during its silence.
But they were happy to hear from it again.
“People take communications for granted,” Pengelly said. “In the 70s I was amazed I could hold something in my hands with no wires and communicate with people.”
The Blue Lake crew may get bonus points other teams do not get – from a write-up in the paper.