North

Amid pandemic, amateur radio societies across the North are seeking new recruits

Online courses for the radio operator’s test are filling up quickly, as volunteers seek to build emergency networks across the North.

Self-isolation is an opportunity to train up ham radio operators

Amateur radio operator Geoff Grant (VY1BG) transmits messages to Terrace, B.C., during Operation Nanook, a communications exercise the Yukon Amateur Radio Association participated in with health services and the military. The association has seen growing interest in online courses since self-isolation orders were put in place. (Yukon Amateur Radio Association)

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

He's part of the Yellowknife Amateur Radio Society, which is joining other radio societies 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 set themselves up for just a few hundred dollars and some harvested parts from other technology, or they can spend tens of thousands of dollars, said Thompson.

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

Welder's Daughter frontwoman, Karen Novak is planning to get her amateur radio license.

As a kid, Karen Novak found her love of amateur radio through her parents who owned many radios. (Submitted by Karen Novak)

On a typical weekend night, Novak is usually belting out a Cher cover at the Gold Range in Yellowknife. 

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

Novak grew up on an acreage in Alberta and couldn't get TV signals. She first took an interest in amateur radio because her parents owned many shortwave radios.

Novak and her cousin (radio names: Glitter Girl and Black Cat) would use two-way CB radios to eavesdrop on traffic talk, storytelling and people's conversations to pass the time.

"It was almost like a party line," she said. 

They would listen for hours. As an adult, she became an "electronics geek," drawn to communicating with the world and listening to the skies. 

"As a synthesizer specialist, I deal with tones and modulating sound. I tune into those frequencies a lot with my work, so this just takes it to a whole other level."

She said there is room for experimentation with amateur radio. 

"I don't think we've hit all the boundaries yet," she said. 

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

More than a hobby

Yuuri Daiku (call sign VY1YU) is an amateur radio enthusiast in Whitehorse. He's taught many students the ways of amateur radio through the Yukon Amateur Radio Association.

As a kid, he would dismantle and reassemble electronics and radios. As an adult, he would transmit as far as South Africa and Ecuador. 

In university, he mounted a small antenna to his fence in Victoria. He made a friend in Vancouver and they would talk about "anything and everything," he said. 

But amateur radio can be for more than just casual conversation.

In the mid '80s, during a hurricane, Daiku worked with a network of operators to transmit critical information using a radio hooked up to a car battery.

Daiku said establishing backup communications independent of the power grid can be useful in emergency situations, especially in the North, a region prone to outages.

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

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

Potential for network of operators in North

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

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

She says she's studied diligently every weekend and by the summer, she expects to have her license. 

Gerbrandt said the process has been challenging but when she sends that first transmission, she'll be "nervous and grateful." 

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

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

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