Amid pandemic, northern amateur radio companies are looking for new recruits

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Amateur radio enthusiast Ron Thompson made contact with Russia from Yellowknife. He also used it to reach his wife to get milk from the store.

He is part of the Yellowknife Amateur Radio Society, which joins with other radio companies to recruit people to study as licensed operators during their self-isolation.

Amateur radio is useful for emergency communications during natural disasters, but it can also be used for fun, for local non-commercial communications.

Once someone passes the test, they can settle in for a few hundred dollars and a few coins harvested from other technology, or they can spend tens of thousands of dollars, Thompson said.

The call for recruits went out this month, but with a pandemic keeping people at home, online classes are filling up fast, Thompson said.

Welder’s Daughter singer Karen Novak is considering getting her amateur radio license.

As a child, Karen Novak discovered her love for amateur radio thanks to her parents who owned many radios. (Submitted by Karen Novak)

On a typical weekend night, Novak typically sings a Cher blanket at the Gold Range in Yellowknife.

With local bars closed due to COVID-19, Novak said she had time to study for the exam.

Novak grew up on an area in Alberta and could not receive television signals. She first became interested in amateur radio because her parents owned many shortwave radios.

Novak and his cousin (radio names: Glitter Girl and Black Cat) used two-way CB radios to listen in on traffic conversations, stories, and people’s conversations to pass the time.

“It was almost like a party line,” she said.

They listened for hours. As an adult, she became an “electronics geek”, drawn to communicating with the world and listening to the sky.

“As a specialist in synthesizers, I take care of the tones and modulation of the sound. I adapt to those frequencies a lot with my work, so that takes it to a whole new level.”

She said there is room for experimentation with amateur radio.

“I don’t think we’ve hit all the limits yet,” she said.

The Yukon Amateur Radio Association builds and maintains a network of repeater sites to establish connectivity across borders. (Yukon Radio Amateurs Association)

More than a hobby

Yuuri Daiku (call sign VY1YU) is an avid amateur radio enthusiast in Whitehorse. He taught amateur radio techniques to many students through the Yukon Amateur Radio Association.

As a child, he took apart and reassembled electronics and radios. In adulthood, it will transmit to South Africa and Ecuador.

In college, he set up a small antenna on his fence in Victoria. He made a friend in Vancouver and they were talking about “anything and everything,” he said.

But amateur radio can be more than just casual conversation.

In the mid-1980s, during a hurricane, Daiku worked with a network of operators to transmit critical information using a radio connected to a car battery.

Daiku said establishing backup communications independent of the power grid can be useful in emergency situations, especially in the north, an area prone to blackouts.

In 2012, amateur radio operators provided critical information during a power outage that interrupted telecommunications in the Yukon for several hours, Daiku said.

Angela Gerbrandt decided to study for the radio operator test because she wants to be able to perform emergency communications if her town of Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, pictured here, is in need. (Mark Hadlari / CBC)

Potential network of operators in the North

Like Daiku, Angela Gerbrandt sees the value of amateur radios in times of crisis. She decided to study for the radio operator test because she wants to be able to perform emergency communications if her town of Cambridge Bay, Nunavut is in need.

When she finishes studying Morse code, she may be one of the few amateur radio operators in Nunavut.

She says she studies diligently every weekend and expects to get her license by the summer.

Gerbrandt said the process had been difficult, but when she sends that first transmission she will be “nervous and grateful”.

As communities are strained by the impacts of climate change, it will be helpful to have a network of radio operators, she said.

Gerbrandt said she hopes others in the communities will continue with their license. There is great potential to build a network of operators in Nunavut and the North, she said.


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