Sun Valley Magazine: Hamming it up

Sun Valley Magazine has a great article about Amateur Radio in the Wood River Valley.

Full article is located here:


The Resurgence of Amateur Radio

When we hear the term “ham radio,” most of us envision some old guy or maybe a young, Boy Scout-aged kid buried behind a wall of electronics in a basement or shed somewhere. But the times they are a-changin’ and that’s great news for those of us who like to play and travel in remote stretches of rural Idaho.

One of the main reasons for the resurgence is that ham radios are no longer monstrous mounds of electronics requiring antennas the size of the Eiffel Tower to operate. The average ham radio nowadays is about the size of a cell phone from a decade ago, just smaller than your average can of beer.

Improvements in size, and in ease of usability, have helped usher in a new era for amateur, or ham, radio, especially in remote places like the Wood River Valley.

“You’ll find people from every walk of life in the Valley involved,” Joe Yelda explained. Yelda is the public information officer for the Wood River Amateur Radio Club (WRARC) and is part of a core membership that has watched the group go from about a dozen to well over 200 members in just a handful of years.

“Things really changed after the Castle Rock fire (in 2007) and then the Christmas power outage (in 2009),” Yelda said, explaining that ham radio operators were able to stay abreast of what was (or wasn’t) happening while everyone else in the Wood River Valley was, literally, out in the cold.

But fire and emergency services professionals—and the odd Boy Scout in search of a merit badge—aren’t the only people picking up ham radios. The beefed up walky-talkies have become popular with backcountry guides, as well as people of all ages who like to play in off-the-grid spots like the Sawtooths or even just travel over Galena Pass—places where there’s isn’t any cell phone coverage.

“It’s sort of a hidden society that no one knows about, but one that can come in handy,” Sue Martin said. Martin owns Zaney’s Coffee House in Hailey, where WRARC meetings and tests are held a couple times each year (for more information see sidebar: Tuning into Ham Radio). And Martin isn’t simply another proud “ham,” as operators are sometimes called, she also appreciates the sense of safety it gives her to carry a radio—which she does pretty much everywhere she goes now.

“There are a lot of cell phone holes around here, so I take it with me anytime I go out,” she said. Martin and a few other operators attending last winter’s “Tech Night” at Zaney’s also shared stories about local hams helping out others in need or crisis.

Stories, which are well known within the local ham radio community, about operators stumbling upon vehicles that hit game near Redfish Lake and were able to use their radios to get emergency response units there just in the nick of time. Or backcountry skiers saving rescue teams dangerous searches by calling in their whereabouts after avalanches. Or about the numerous ham-radio-assisted rescues done last summer, including helping to save a climber stranded on the Elephant’s Perch in the Sawtooths.

“For the population of the Valley, it’s really huge here. And there’s an interesting cross section of people that get involved just because they want to help,” said Martin, who raised two children here on her own and is proud to long have been able to use an old Red Cross hand-cranked ham radio. As she said with a smile, “You know, us single moms know how to be prepared.”

Thanks in part to its growing local popularity, new radio antennas now run from Stanley to Twin Falls, making communication from the headwaters of the “River of No Return” through the Big Wood drainage and all the way down to the Snake River possible, no matter what the circumstance.

One of the other big appeals about ham radio is that it not only allows operators to connect locally, but it also makes it pretty easy to communicate with people across the globe.

“I’ve talked to people all over the world,” said Yelda, who, as a child actor, appeared in the John Wayne film “3 Godfathers” and as an adult used to talk each Sunday with his best friend, a fellow ham radio operator who lived in Belize.

But for some ham radio operators, like the Mandevilles, talking to someone in Central America while you’re sitting in central Idaho actually seems like a local call. Before moving to Idaho, the local couple spent six months sailing across the Pacific Ocean, from the Oregon coast to New Zealand, and a ham radio was their lifeline. They used it to get weather reports and to “auto patch,” which allows a ham radio operator to talk with a person on a regular phone.

“It was very important. It was our only form of real communication,” Ellen Mandeville explained, adding that she and her husband haven’t taken another such voyage recently because, “now we’re parents. It’s a much bigger adventure.”

Parents, backpackers, backcountry skiers, firefighters, farmers, hunters, gear geeks, long-distance friends, folks of all ages (12 and up) and walks of life can be found operating ham radios now. The days of amateur radio being just a hobby of Boy Scouts and old men is ancient history—and it looks like we’re all better off, and a lot safer, for it.

“It astounds me that there are so many people around here willing to help others out,” Martin said. “You can see where this is going. You’re never going to have to feel like you’re incapable.” -Mike McKenna