Members of the Moose Horn Amateur Radio club raise a portable antennae tower during ham Radio Feild Day on Saturday, June 25, 2016 at Skyview Middle School in Soldotna, Alaska. Members of the club spent 24 hours working two transmitters from their trailer in the Skyview parking lot in a nation-wide competition to make the greatest number of contacts with other amateur radio operators.

Members of the Moose Horn Amateur Radio club raise a portable antennae tower during ham Radio Feild Day on Saturday, June 25, 2016 at Skyview Middle School in Soldotna, Alaska. Members of the club spent 24 hours working two transmitters from their trailer in the Skyview parking lot in a nation-wide competition to make the greatest number of contacts with other amateur radio operators.

The spirit of radio

About a dozen people spent the better part of their weekend in the parking lot of Skyview Middle School in one of two trailers belonging to the Soldotna-based Moose Horn Amateur Radio Club. One trailer contained a pair of radio consoles, a bank of generator-charged car batteries to power them, and a pair of bunks for their operators — the other a home-made antennae tower that can be erected with a hand-cranked winch.

A second tower was set up by hand nearby, allowing club members to work the two radios from 10 a.m Saturday until 10 a.m Sunday in a marathon 24-hour competition to contact other operators around the northern hemisphere. By the end, they had exchanged call signs with 326 other amateur radio operators from places including Canada, Mexico, Indiana, Hawaii, Texas, Florida and Connecticut.

Moosehorn club member Chuck Kuhlman described the event as “useful play.” Member Ryan Christman said the goal was “to set up and operate portable stations, to demonstrate our abilities, and to have fun in the outdoors.”

In a world with ubiquitous cell phones and internet, the towers and car batteries of amateur radio seem crude. But this heavy equipment is the opposite of the fragile, invisible infrastructure on which such miraculous modern communications depend — an infrastructure that can be easily damaged by disaster or attack. The pair of trailers allows the Moosehorn club to set up an emergency HAM radio station anywhere they can park.

“We have different methods of communication now, but radio in one form or another is still important,” Moosehorn member Al Hershberger said. “Other methods of communication can be disabled, so although there are many other alternatives now, I think it’s still a good backup.”

The first ham radio field day was organized by the American Radio Relay League in 1933. Locally, the Moosehorn club also has a long history.

Hershberger said he got his first radio while fighting as artilleryman during World War II. It was a “volksempfänger,” or “people’s receiver,” commissioned by Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels and distributed to German citizens in the 1930s and 40s. After “liberating” the radio, Hershberger said he began messing around with it while off-duty.

“I’m curious,” he said. “When I see something that I don’t how it works, I want to know how it works … I swapped the tubes and stuff like that, and I looked inside and tried to see how it worked.”

After the war, in 1948, Hershberger found himself in Kenai, where he said he started fixing radios for fishermen.

“The commercial fishermen used battery-powered radios, and they listened to get the openings and closings of the commercial fishing seasons, when they could fish and when they couldn’t fish,” Hershberger said. “For commercial fishermen in Cook Inlet, the radio was a vital thing. I fixed a lot of those.”

Hershberger said he “just kept playing with radios, until I finally went into business,” opening a radio and TV repair shop in Soldotna in the 1950s.

He joined the local club, which was then the Wildwood Station Amateur Radio Club, after the Wildwood Air Force Station that once occupied much of the present area of Kenai. Hershberger said he still has the hand-drawn membership card of the Wildwood Club. When the military base disbanded, the group changed to its present name.

When the Good Friday earthquake struck in 1964, destroying telephone lines between Alaska and the outside world, Hershberger and fellow club member Ed Back became two of the radio operators on the Kenai Peninsula working to relay messages to the rest of the country.

“We were sending messages from the bowling alley the first night (after the earthquake),” Hershberger said. “Then I went back to my house, where I had a more powerful antennae. We didn’t have power the first night, so we were running off of generators … People would come to us and bring messages, give us a phone number of somebody living somewhere in the States, and say ‘Tell them I’m okay.’ We could talk to a ham who was close by, and he would get on the phone and call that person and give the message … After the first day, my voice was so sore I couldn’t hardly talk. It happened Friday night, and by Sunday evening we relaxed.”

Hershberger also sent messages for fire departments and other civil defense agencies during the 1969 Swanson River fire. Technological changes since Hershberger started fooling with radios have touched the ham world as well. Some members of the Moosehorn club now connect their laptops to their radio transmitters, using protocols that allow them to send digital files with the same signals other operators still use for morse code.

Nationwide, the American Radio Relay League has around 160,000 members in its affiliated clubs, according to the group’s website. A regional radio club based in Washington D.C won last year’s field day competition by making 9,700 contacts in 24 hours. Christman said success in radio often depends on the environment.

“Some people try to contact all 50 states and all the Canadian provinces,” he said. “But it all depends on the current radio conditions — the solar condition of the sun affects how short-wave radio works, and that affects how productive we can be.”

Club member Ed Seaward said he can usually send a signal to the Lower 48, but getting signals is much harder. Christman said Alaska’s latitude sometimes creates problems for radio.

“Being this far north, the ionosphere — which is what affects our radio signals — acts differently than it does further south, closer to the equator,” Christman said. “It bends radio waves kind of like a prism … Since we also have extremes of daylight and darkness, that also affects which bands work better at different times of the day. And the aurora completely shuts us down when it’s very active.”

However, Alaska does have what could be called a cultural advantage in radio sports.

“People find it interesting to contact us as opposed to other locations,” Christman said. “For the sake of contesting, field day, and some other activities, (Alaska) is considered in the ham radio world as almost a separate country. We are sought after in contesting, and for people to talk to generally, because we’re so far away.”

 

Reach Ben Boettger at ben.boettger@peninsulaclarion.com.

Photo by Ben Boettger/Clarion Peninsula George Van Lone of Soldotna's Moosehorn Amateur Radio Club listens for radio messages, attempting to exchange call signs with other operators, during ham radio field day on Saturday, June 25, 2016 in the parking lot of Skyveiw Middle School in Soldotna, Alaska. After seeking contacts for 24 hours, club members exchanged messages with 326 stations, including some in Hawaii, Connecticut, Florida, Texas, and Mexico.

Photo by Ben Boettger/Clarion Peninsula George Van Lone of Soldotna’s Moosehorn Amateur Radio Club listens for radio messages, attempting to exchange call signs with other operators, during ham radio field day on Saturday, June 25, 2016 in the parking lot of Skyveiw Middle School in Soldotna, Alaska. After seeking contacts for 24 hours, club members exchanged messages with 326 stations, including some in Hawaii, Connecticut, Florida, Texas, and Mexico.

Members of the Moose Horn Amateur Radio club use a hand-cranked winch to raise a portable antennae tower from the bed of their trailer during this year's Ham Radio Feild Day on Saturday, June 25 at Skyview Middle School in Soldotna.

Members of the Moose Horn Amateur Radio club use a hand-cranked winch to raise a portable antennae tower from the bed of their trailer during this year’s Ham Radio Feild Day on Saturday, June 25 at Skyview Middle School in Soldotna.

More in News

Sens. Löki Tobin, D-Anchorage, right, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, and Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee, discuss a bill proposing a nearly 17% increase in per-student education funding Wednesday at the Alaska State Capitol. (Mark Sabbatini /Juneau Empire)
State Senate bill would bump per-student funding amount by $1,000

If approved, the legislation would bump state education funding by more than $257 million

Recognizable components make up this metal face seen in a sculpture by Jacob Nabholz Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023, at the Kenai Art Center, in Kenai, Alaska, as part of Metalwork & Play. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Metalwork gets time to shine

Metal is on showcase this month at the Kenai Art Center

This 2019 aerial photo provided by ConocoPhillips shows an exploratory drilling camp at the proposed site of the Willow oil project on Alaska’s North Slope. The Biden administration issued a long-awaited study on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023, that recommends allowing three oil drilling sites in the region of far northern Alaska. The move, while not final, has angered environmentalists who see it as a betrayal of President Joe Biden’s pledges to reduce carbon emissions and promote green energy. (ConocoPhillips via AP)
Biden administration recommends major Alaska oil project

The move — while not final — drew immediate anger from environmentalists

Homer Electric Association General Manager Brad Janorschke testifies before the Senate Resources Committee on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023, in Juneau, Alaska. (Screenshot via Gavel Alaska)
Senate group briefed on future of Cook Inlet gas

Demand for Cook Inlet gas could outpace supply as soon as 2027

The logo for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is displayed inside the George A. Navarre Borough Admin Building on Thursday, July 22, 2021, in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Peninsula voices join state debate over school funding

Lawmakers heard pleas from education leaders around Alaska to increase the state’s base student allocation

Tamera Mapes and a client laugh and joke with one another during a free haircut at Project Homeless Connect on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023, at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Caring and connecting

Project Homeless Connect offers a variety of services

This September 2011 aerial photo provided by the Environmental Protection Agency, shows the Bristol Bay watershed in Alaska. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023, effectively vetoed a proposed copper and gold mine in the remote region of southwest Alaska that is coveted by mining interests but that also supports the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery. (Joseph Ebersole/EPA via AP)
EPA blocks Pebble Mine

Pebble called the EPA’s action “unlawful” and political and said litigation was likely

COVID-19. (Image courtesy CDC)
COVID-19 cases continue to climb

Statewide hospitalizations decreased slightly

A plow truck clears snow from the Kenai Spur Highway on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2022, in Kenai, Alaska. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Soldotna council approves extra $100k for snow removal

At the end of December, the department was already more than $27,000 over their $100,000 budget for snow removal

Most Read