I have been an amateur radio operator for many years and of all my interests, this one is the hardest to fathom. Why in an age of instant global communication would anyone want to play around with good old fashioned and not too reliable radio? “Ham” radio, as it is widely known, undoubtedly has many facets and technical challenges but I’m also discovering it satisfies a deeper need.
I’m almost obsessive about it. I’m either fixing up 30-year-old radios or building antennas from scrap or plumbing supplies from the local hardware store. With the exception of a Chinese handheld VHF radio I have never bought anything new. Some enthusiasts spend thousands on radios but unless you have a good antenna you’re wasting your time.
With this in mind, my latest antenna project grew out of 100’ of chicken wire and scrap aluminum tubing from my decommissioned swimming pool. In fact, the whole contraption sits over what used to be the pool. The structure is anchored by a huge electrical insulator and rises to a giddy vertical 45’. Thankfully it is slim and tidy enough to be barely visible to neighbours. After several weeks of head scratching and tinkering it now works like a charm.
Living in a relatively sparsely populated corner of North America, I find it difficult to be heard above my southern neighbours. Like the vehicles they drive, their stations tend to be rather large and consume huge amounts of energy. When an exotic call wafts in from another continent, a chorus of replies reverberates through the aether shaking the planet to its very core as one station tries to outgun another. I don’t have an amplifier and put out no more power than it takes to run a light bulb so my chances of being heard are very, very slim.
For instance, the other evening I heard a Spanish station calling CQ – the term is a hang over from the days of Morse Code that is an invitation for a response. Before I could even pick up the microphone “Carlos” was being pounced on. The exchanges are so predictable. “Fine business Carlos! Great signal into Kansas my good friend!” A typical exchange lasts about 30 seconds, a new call sign gets added to a log book and they’re off to find another victim.
So I’m learning to poke around the short-wave bands and sniff-out the weaker, interesting stuff that get’s passed over by the big guns. I twirled the tuning dial and came across a quiet spot in the band. Through the gentle hiss came a faint voice. “CQ, CQ, CQ, this is Golf Three Oscar Mike Golf pedestrian mobile.”
“Pedestrian mobile from the UK? Wow!
I called him and to my surprise he immediately answered. After the obligatory exchange of names and signal reports I ask, “So where the hell are you?”
“Actually I’m on Blackpool Beach and I’m running fifty watts from my backpack rig into a fifteen foot whip antenna.”
“Wow that’s incredible…and what’s the weather doing?”
“Oh it’s cold and just starting to rain.”
I smiled to myself; as much as I still love my homeland I’m glad I’m in the sunny BC Okanagan. This is really awesome I thought, we’re five-thousand miles apart and we are talking with a few hundred dollars of electronics and in my case, repurposed swimming pool hardware.
After a few minutes we end our chat and I wish him “Seven three and good DX” and really hope he makes lots more contacts.
One thing I am learning in life is that the loudest voices often have little of interest to say. It also dawned on me that my obsession with antennas and radio has a deeper meaning. Maybe it is a reflection of a desire not only to communicate my humanity to others but also to listen for that most important voice of all – the small quiet one within. Like the short wave bands, there’s so much noise in my head that I need to find a quiet spot and just listen.