HAMS LOVE DOGS!
We all know dogs love bacon, but in the case of the UP200 and the Midnight Run, it’s HAM they rely on – as in HAM radio operators.
According to Paul Racine, a member of the Hiawatha Amateur Radio Association and coordinator of the 2014 UP200 HAM radio team, there are anywhere from 50 to 60 amateur radio operators throughout Marquette and Alger Counties who park themselves out on the trail to help keep track of the mushers and their teams.
"Our main contact is at headquarters," Racine says. "This year we’ll share space at the YMCA with the race officials. We work shifts, and we have two radios set up, one for the UP200 and another one for the Midnight Run. There may be two or three people working each station at headquarters at any given time."
"The team at headquarters stays in touch with operators in the field to help keep track of the racers and to gauge the progress of the races. We position people out on the trail and will have, for instance, a person at the Start, and others stationed at various staging points out along the trail – primarily at checkpoints."
In a wilderness environment like the Upper Peninsula, especially in mid-winter, communications can be spotty and without the volunteer efforts of the amateur radio operators, it would be difficult to keep track of what’s going on where.
"On the trail, we all use mobile or hand-held hand radios," Racine says. "Some checkpoints are in a good enough position that the operators can be in their vehicles. Others that are not so lucky have to stand outside with their handheld radios."
It can be a long night but it’s a vital contribution to the event. The race officials rely on the radio reports to monitor the progress of the races. "Every time a team goes through," says Racine, "their team number and time is recorded. It’s not an official time, but is used for logging what time that specific team went through that particular checkpoint. It’s very helpful for tracking purposes in case a team gets lost, which does happen."
Since the times are not used in judging, there’s often a gap between when the musher passes a certain point and when that information is passed on to headquarters. In the UP200, with so many fast moving, 12-dog teams speeding past, the HAMs are under considerable pressure to accurately record team number, checkpoint and time.
"The radio operators may not report in at the very second a team passes," says Racine, "since there can be several teams coming through a checkpoint close together. So when there’s a lull, they radio in the team numbers, times and locations. For example, ‘Team 11 went thru at 7:53; Team 5 went thru at 7:58 and so forth. They may collect three or four, then report to headquarters."
As Racine points out, the organizers try to have a HAM operator at every checkpoint. After the last team goes down the trail, an official Sweep Team runs the course, making sure no mushers are stranded. The HAM operators keep track of the Sweep Team’s progress through each checkpoint and they encourage the Sweeps as well as the race officials to seek out and hail the HAMs as they clear each checkpoint.
"That way we can report the whereabouts of the sweeps and officials. That becomes important if somebody suddenly needs to be contacted or if someone disappears, because at least we have information about where they were last seen."
All the HAM radio operators are volunteers. The Race Committee maintains lists of the past volunteers and they start contacting them by phone in late fall to determine if they are willing to help at the same post as in the previous year.
"Once we see how many are committed each year," says Racine, "we start looking at the vacancies and making phone calls to all the radio members in our community. There are over 100 members of the Hiawatha Amateur Radio Association, which covers the Marquette County portion of the races, and another 30 or so in the Alger County Amateur Radio Club which covers the trails in that county. We mostly all know each other. It’s almost like a fraternity or a coffee klatch. For instance, instead of meeting down at McDonalds for coffee at 7 am, we meet on the air each morning at 7 am and get to know each other pretty well."
Ham radio operators have been involved in sled dog racing from the very first Iditarod, but they provide a much greater service than keeping track of mushers. In the case of natural disasters like tornadoes, hurricanes, blizzards and earthquakes, it’s not uncommon for normal communication services to be compromised.
"Phone towers can only operate on batteries for a limited amount of time," Racine points out, "but eventually those batteries go dead. With generators for power, HAM radio operators can help coordinate emergency services and pass along messages. This is a hobby that pioneered the internet and email-type communication. Now we can also use satellites."
And in the UP, they are a very important component of the UP200 and Midnight Run. Just ask the dogs!