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Valley radio enthusiasts make global connections Hamming it up

Making a contact with help from operator Larry Da Ponte, Cub Scout Lucas Tjom, 9, takes part in the ham radio field day. - Seth Truscott / Snoqualmie Valley Record
Making a contact with help from operator Larry Da Ponte, Cub Scout Lucas Tjom, 9, takes part in the ham radio field day.
— image credit: Seth Truscott / Snoqualmie Valley Record

You might think your pocket cell phone or wireless Internet is the pinnacle of the communications technology.

That is, until you meet amateur radio enthusiasts — better known as “hams” — who can talk to their colleagues by bouncing radio waves off of airplanes, meteors and the moon.

Hams gathered at Valley Camp near the Middle Fork of the Snoqualmie River near North Bend on June 28 and 29 for their annual Field Day event, where they assembled antennas, shared knowledge and competed to talk to as many people as possible across the globe.

During their field day, local hams contacted places as far afield as Ontario, Canada, and Hawaii.

“Some hams are into the hobby for the challenge,” said North Bend resident Stephen Kangas, or W9SK, as he’s known by his call sign. Attempting to bounce a signal off a meteor, or contacting astronauts is difficult, but “once you accomplish it, you can go ‘Yes!’”

On the hot afternoon, Kangas worked with his son Gabriel, 13, to set up a portable UHF antenna to bounce signals off planes or meteors.

“It feels like a great feat,” said Gabriel, “that you can really go that far, bounce a signal off the moon.”

Kangas became a ham just to talk to somebody new. Growing up in Alaska, Kangas got his ham license as a fifth grader.

“I grew up in the bush — no TV, no FM, no AM except at night,” he said. “I was interested in just talking, to anybody.”

Kangas grew up and life got busy for a while, but when his own young son overheard an informal conversation on the radio and got interested, he brought dad back into the fold.

Some people become a ham operator because they’re fascinated by the technology, others because they like to meet people from other countries. Some do it to serve their community in times of need — ham operators act as vital communications lifelines in cities where regular radio is downed by storms or natural disasters, such as the December 2006 windstorm that knocked out power in the Valley. Hams also help with communication at events such as parades and the Tour de Peaks bike ride.

But some hams just do it for the “rag chewing,” the chance to chat with their colleagues, the world over.

Hams can talk to fellow enthusiasts by bouncing radio waves off the lower ionosphere, part of the earth’s atmosphere. If conditions are right, a signal can bounce two or three times and make it to the other side of the world.

Right now, the solar winds aren’t at their most powerful, meaning signals are not as strong, but hams can still connect with Europe and Japan.

“There’s one station I want to contact on Field Day, and that’s the student station at the University of North Dakota,” said Erik Anderson of North Bend, a.k.a N7HMS. “Because it’s my alumni.”

Anderson has turned his 1987 Volkswagen Cabriolet into a mobile radio station, mounting a 7-foot antenna. The metal mass of the car acts as part of the receiver, and Anderson can reach South America and Australia with the help of his Volkswagen.

“Russia is no problem,” he said.

Hams traditionally introduce themselves to each other by their call sign first, given name second.

“The call sign is your name,” Anderson said.

Hams may not speak the same language, but they can communicate in code.

“The basic information exchange is universal,” Kangas said.

Hams give their call sign, a signal report, and their location, described through a code based on an international phonetic language, using “words” like alpha, delta, and zed. Having a real conversation is challenging.

The earth’s electromagnetic background changes during the day, and some radio frequencies are at their peak during daytime, others at night. Dusk is a good time for the 20-meter wavelength. Last year, contacts started coming alive at 3 a.m.

The part of hamming that excites Kangas is educating young people.

He’s held ham events at Two Rivers School, and is working to get more Valley schoolchildren involved next year.

Setting up an antenna at Two Rivers, Kangas said students had a blast. The lesson mixes geography and sociology with a little bit of physics.

Be a ham

• For more information on how to become a ham, or amateur radio operator, visit www.wedothat-radio.org. License classes are held periodically; Morse code is no longer required.

• To join the North Bend Amateur Radio Emergency Service Team, serving Eastside Fire and Rescue, North Bend and the surrounding area, visit www.northbendares.org.

• To join the Snoqualmie Emergency Communications and Support Team, which includes hams supporting the city of Snoqualmie, visit home.earthlink.net/~enatai/secast.

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