Bob King has talked to astronauts on the international space station from the comfort of his home in Lacombe.
Thanks to a well-equipped “ham shack” in his basement and some very large antenna on his roof, the amateur radio operator can track the movements of the international space station and if the crew members on board feel like having a chat, he can say hello.
King can also transmit to certain satellites created by amateur radio operators and communicate with people all over Canada and the U.S. Even without the satellites, with the right conditions he can talk to people all over the planet.
He was one of the many people taking part in the Central Alberta Amateur Radio Club’s 39th Annual Red Deer Amateur Radio Picnic and Hamfest at Poplar Ridge Community Hall recently.
The event gathers amateur radio operators, or hams as they are often referred to, from around the province to share stories, sell off unwanted equipment and take part in things like the “bunny hunt.” In this case no furry critters are harmed. A transmitter is hidden and people must hunt it down in an event that is a little like a high-tech Easter egg hunt.
Although the Internet and cellphones have taken over as means of communicating over far distances, the amateur radio operators still hold an important place in society. The leisure activity is more than just a hobby. In times of emergency a ham radio may be the only way to communicate.
“Around the world it is a very important communication method when there are natural disasters,” said Brian Davies, who has been an amateur radio operator for 35 years. “The first thing that goes down are the communication towers and power systems.”
King concurred, pointing to the Pine Lake tornado, close to nine years ago. He first heard something happening on his scanner. He went down to his ham shack and soon found out communications in the area were down. He set up an emergency net, feeding information from the Red Cross to Calgary and Red Deer from his home in Lacombe. King didn’t leave his basement for eight hours. The Red Cross awarded him a certificate for his help.
It was at a commemorative event for the Pine Lake tornado, that Ric Henderson first encountered the amateur radio operators and was convinced to join the local group.
Henderson, the director of Community and Protective Services for Red Deer County, was at the weekend CAARC event with the county’s mobile command post. Although the weekend was about having fun, he said it also gives the county a chance to make sure the equipment is working properly.
“If the cellphones are down or the county radios are down ham radio will keep working,” Henderson said.
For many in the club being an amateur radio operator is an excuse to tinker.
Davies said he has always been an experimenter, who from a young age would rip electronics apart to see how they worked.
While working in the North he has picked up signals from as far away as Japan with just a small unit and with the mobile unit in his truck he often is able to talk to people in the southern U.S.
He encouraged others interested in getting started to go to the Central Alberta Amateur Radio Club website at www.caarc.ca for more information.