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Radio Gaga: Ham radio alive and well in lakes country

In one form or another, the phenomenon known as "ham" (i.e., amateur) radio has been around since the late 19th century. Though some might say that the advent of digital communication technology has rendered it somewhat obsolete, the hobby is ali...

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Noble and Sudhir “Sunny” Kamath work on picking up an elusive signal. Vicki Gerdes

In one form or another, the phenomenon known as "ham" (i.e., amateur) radio has been around since the late 19th century.

Though some might say that the advent of digital communication technology has rendered it somewhat obsolete, the hobby is alive and well in Becker County, where the monthly meetings of the Detroit Lakes Amateur Radio Club typically draw upwards of a dozen or more radio enthusiasts.

According to DLARC vice president Sudhir "Sunny" Kamath, the club has a paid membership of 16, and there are 20 licensed operators in the county, though he believes there are quite a few more than that.

What makes ham radio so uniquely appealing, he adds, is its diversity, both in terms of membership and areas of interest.

"You meet people from all walks of life, with many different interests," he said. "There are so many ways of communicating...that's what makes it exciting."

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From low band to high frequency transmissions, Morse code to complex encryptions, taking part in contests or just chatting with fellow "hams" from around the globe... there is no shortage of ways to get involved.

"I'd rather 'talk' in Morse code than verbally, especially overseas," says Jordell Brose of Detroit Lakes, "because you can communicate with people even if they don't speak your language."

Brose's main interest is in QRP operation, which refers to transmitting at reduced power - 5 watts or less - while attempting to maximize effective transmission range. Its opposite is QRO, or high-power operation.

"I like to talk to people," says Kamath, who was born and raised in India but currently makes his home in Detroit Lakes. "My goal is to talk with someone from every county in the United States - all 3,007 of them. I'm up to about 445 and have confirmed 386. Confirming is always difficult, since you have to receive a postcard or electronic confirmation, which does not always happen.

"I've also talked with people in all 50 states," he added.

Dave Johnson, who lives on Long Lost Lake near Bagley, says his interest is in DX--or making two-way radio contact with distant stations.

A ham radio operator since 1965, Johnson says his most recent project has been helping to set up stations at national parks across the country, as part of "National Parks on the Air," a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service.

"I've done about 10 activations so far," he said. "I'm also interested in contesting. There's contests almost every weekend."

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In a contest, an amateur radio station, which may be operated by an individual or a team, seeks to contact as many other amateur radio stations as possible in a given period of time and exchange information.

Kamath, who has also been involved in contesting, says he participated in the "Minnesota QSO Party" in 2014 and made 203 contacts with 76 unique counties, states or countries. While in the same contest in 2015, he made 245 contacts with 83 unique counties/states/countries - in both years, the highest score of any operator in Becker County.

Vince Gangelhoff, who hails from Grand Forks but frequently vacations in Detroit Lakes, says he's been involved in just about every type of radio communication, from short wave all the way up to the highest frequencies.

"My interest is in reaching all the states (in the U.S.) with a small loop antenna," he said. "So far, I've reached all but 10."

Club member Bob Gilbertson of Barnesville, along with Craig Fontaine and Dan Holm of Detroit Lakes, have all worked with ham radio in their professional careers - Holm and Fontaine are, respectively, the past and present emergency management services (EMS) coordinators for Becker County, while Gilbertson has filled that role for Clay County in the past.

According to Fontaine, one of the primary functions of a ham radio operator is to assist with communications during natural disasters and other emergency situations.

One example was during the floods in the Fargo-Moorhead area, when they helped the street department to organize sandbag delivery and placement, as well as helping the Salvation Army to find volunteers and assisting with overall communications.

"We help free up radios and personnel to get done what they need to get done," Gilbertson explained.

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During Hurricane Katrina, Fontaine said, there were hundreds of ham radio operators who went in and helped by providing two-way communication in areas where there were downed electric lines and cell phone towers.

"I went down there and worked with the Red Cross," says DLARC member John Hovdenes of Detroit Lakes. "I was down there for three weeks, and during the first week to 10 days, the only communication anybody really had was through ham radio... About 10 days after the second hurricane, they started getting the communications infrastructure back up."

"We assist with fun things too, like the Ojibwe Forests Rally (which took place this past weekend)," said Fontaine, noting that there were ham radio operators set up along the route to keep race officials and others informed of course conditions, etc.

Other events that ham radio operators have been involved with in the past include the Third Crossing Sled Dog Rendezvous in Frazee, The Ride Across Minnesota (TRAM) and the Run around Rose Lake.

Carl Noble, who has a fairly elaborate ham radio "shack" set up in the basement of his New York Mills home, says he has an interest in many different types of radio communication.

"I love shortwave (communication)," he said. "What I like to do is sit down and listen to shortwave stations all over the world. You get some real wackos - conspiracy theorists and so forth - but they're great."

Kamath says that there are a lot of misconceptions about ham radio, such as the idea that it takes a lot of money to become an operator. Though some, like Noble, have made a significant investment in their equipment, Kamath said that his radio, antenna and power supply unit cost around $600.
Another misconception is that they need to know Morse code to get a license.

"When I got into it 50 years ago, you did have to know Morse code," says Noble. "Now, you don't need to, because your computer can decode it."

Through Skywarn, a program of the National Weather Service, ham radio operators can also get involved with weather spotting, or "storm chasing" - which is how Noble's daughter Katie became involved.

"I want to put an antenna in my truck so we can be on the go," she said, adding, "I'm working on getting my (operator) license."
Hovdenes, one of the newest members of the club, says he has his basic, or technician's, license and is working on getting his general license, in part to realize a dream.

"What I'm interested in is a backpack outfit, so I can go to the top of a mountain and try to reach whoever I can," he said.

Meetings of the DLARC are open to the general public; more information about the club is available at its website, www.w0emz.com , as well as through the Detroit Lakes Amateur Radio Club page on Facebook.

Related Topics: RADIOBECKER COUNTY
A reporter at Detroit Lakes Newspapers since relocating to the community in October 2000, Vicki was promoted to Community News Lead for the Detroit Lakes Tribune and Perham Focus on Jan. 1, 2022. She has covered pretty much every "beat" that a reporter can be assigned, from county board and city council to entertainment, crime and even sports. Born and raised in Madelia, Minnesota, she is a graduate of Hamline University, from which she earned a bachelor's degree in English literature (writing concentration). You can reach her at vgerdes@dlnewspapers.com.
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