Amateur radio operators on the Kenai Peninsula put up their towers and transmitters for an annual weekend of field exercises. The Moosehorn Amatuer Radio club was stationed at Skyview High School, racking up contacts across the country.
“When all else fails, ham radio works.” That’s the slogan of the national association of amateur radio operators. And it’s a sort of call to arms for ham operators around the country. Like John Pfeifer of Soldotna. He’s a radio guy. He used to do news for KMXT public radio in Kodiak. And while radio is more of a hobby now than a career, he and the other hams here are passionate about communicating over the airwaves.
“It’s a good group of people to hang out with. It attracts people who are interested in the technical end of things, there are people who build their own radios. There are people who are contesters, their stations go on the air for a weekend and see how many other stations around the world they can contact,” Pfeifer said.
“Just a week ago, with a little bit different set up, we made 35,000 contacts around the world,” said Richard Strand. His station in Nikiski routinely places at the top of international competitions.
“So it is possible, but that was a seven day operation.”
This is a little different. The set up isn’t nearly as elaborate, they’ve only got the weekend, and it’s mostly about practicing.
“This is meant to be put together quickly. They give us some time limits, some very simple antennas. The idea is that in an emergency, we could do all this.”
Like so many other operators out here, Strand has been turning the dials since he was a kid. Some have been at it for fifty years or more. Strand puts it like this: Some people own a car, and others race cars. Strand races radio. His station in Nikiski is set up to talk to people in ham radio clubs all over the world. And sometimes in surprising places, like when he made a contact in Iraq during the first Gulf War.
“Ham radio is not politics. It transcends all of the weirdness of the world. It’s just a guy with a love of radio talking to another person with a love of radio.”
John Pfeifer has his own story about an unexpected contact in an unexpected place.
“I was like 17 years old, I remember talking to a ham in Monrovia, Liberia. And he was sitting in a tent, and it was a torrential downpour. That still stands out to me as the best contact I’ve ever had.”
It’s a big deal to get a call into every country. It takes years. Places like North Korea, which Richard Strand has checked off his list, aren’t known for their open, public communications systems, so when the opportunity comes along, you don’t want to miss it.
But he says even with all the equipment and the knobs and buttons and dials and wires and coded languages, there’s still a certain degree of art to it.
“You’ve got to know things like radio propogation and where to point antennas and some bands are a little different and when to switch bands. It’s a little bit of luck but a lot of skill.”
Strand’s station is a race car, but for beginners, it can be toned down a little.
“Basically all you need is a transceiver and an antenna and you’re good to go. I just have a wire up between two trees that I use for an antenna. It’s very simple.”
And it’s that simplicity that makes it so easy to get into, and so invaluable if disaster hits because when all else fails, ham radio works.