The defunct WHLA station atop the Jostad farm in the town of Hamilton once again crackled with radio waves last weekend as a handful of technical aficionados from the Riverland Amateur Radio Club hoisted antennas in preparation for the annual American Radio Relay League Field Day.
As a club, RARC was one of about 20 sites throughout Wisconsin hosting Field Day activities and part of an estimated 35,000 operators nationwide refining their radio skills in the Field Day events.
The Jostad farm also holds a touch of nostalgia for the club. At its inception in the early 1970s, the club held its first Field Day at the farm. But on this day, the nostalgia faded quickly. A biting, northwest wind whipped across the top of the bluff most of the day as club-members struggled to anchor a main antenna in a nearby alfalfa field. Pelting afternoon rain squalls swept across the open land. But abnormal situations are the classrooms of Field Day.
Club Vice-President Dan Abts of La Crosse, who has logged 25 Field Day events since earning his license, explained some of the lessons.
“Field Day is good practice to make sure your equipment works,” he said, which isn’t always the case.
Abts and several others discovered a faulty wire soon after rigging an antenna, so they took it down and Abts drove home to solder the connection. After the repair, they ran it up the old WHLA tower using a pulley and it performed perfectly.
“It’s also good practice for an emergency,” continued Abts, as a generator hummed outside one of the trailers. “We’re a support group; we provide communications for the Red Cross and the Salvation Army.”
Which is why ARRL requires alternative power for Field Day. Clubs rely on emergency power to operate in all sorts of adverse conditions during emergencies. Solar panels for charging radio batteries, however, had to wait in the back of Abts’ vehicle for the sun to shine.
But RARC is more than just emergency communication support. Tom O’Brien of Onalaska and a veteran volunteer of radio support at La Crosse’s National Weather Service location added that storm spotting is another aspect of RARC’s services. He explained that as severe weather approaches, several club members are dispatched to various locations in the county to report the changing conditions via ham radio.
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O’Brien added that as a community service, RARC also provides communication support for the MS walk held in April and the Festival Foods/Grandad’s half-marathon.
While ARRL awards points for each Field Day contact, and many clubs vie for top honors, Abts emphasized that for RARC, Field Day is also a chance to socialize and raise awareness for ham radio in the Coulee Region. Members took advantage of hot coffee during the day to stimulate the kibitzing during down time and anticipated the traditional evening pot-luck dinner. Nevertheless, over the course of the weekend, RARC operators will still log some 300 contacts in most of the 50 states.
For Scott Cross of La Crosse who earned his first ham license in 1988 while living in Pennsylvania, Field Day is both competition and a social event. Cross and his wife pulled their camper out to the farm and operated out of the camper for the duration.
After a brief hiatus from ham radio, Cross jumped back in 2005 on the pretext of introducing his daughter to the hobby.
“She dropped out, and I stuck with it,” he said.
For John Keiser, a computer repairman from Sparta and one of the newest members of RARC, this was only his second Field Day.
“For 20 years I’ve wanted to get into ham radio,” he said, “I like to help people.”
To that end, not only did Kaiser obtain his license, but went on to complete a raft of emergency service courses including a certification for testing new ham applicants.
For more information on club activities, connect with RARC on Facebook or via its website at rarc.qth.com.