Excitement over Solar Cycle 25 could last as long as 11 years for members of the Highland Lakes Amateur Radio Club.
Increased sunspot activity means better radio connections for ham operators interested in emergency preparedness, entering contact log competitions, talking to fellow hams around the world, or experimenting with radio wave activity.
“We are coming out of the bottom of a sun cycle and going into a new one,” club President Al Chitwood said. “The next few years are going to be great.”
Sunspot cycles last for about 11 years and vacillate between good and bad. A good cycle, which many believe began in January 2020, means more sunspots providing solar energy output, or ions, that bend radio frequencies. The more sunspots, the higher the frequencies that can be directed back to Earth. That activity is expected to peak between 2023 and 2026. This latest solar cycle is the 25th since record keeping began in 1755.
For Tom Hauer, ham is all about emergency response. Hauer is the Amateur Radio Emergency Services coordinator for South Texas region, District 8, which includes Blanco, Burnet, and Llano counties. Since 1935, ARES has connected ham operators with agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Red Cross to keep communications open and services flowing in areas cut off by disaster.
Although it did not have to deploy during the February winter storm, the club was called on to help coordinate services in Mason and Llano counties.
“Whenever there is a severe weather warning, we bring up a net — that’s all our hams in this area,” Hauer said. “Then, we coordinate with other counties around us and the National Weather Service to make sure everybody knows what’s going on.”
A net is a group that meets on the air at a specific time for a specific purpose.
Licensed since 1961, Hauer lives in Smithwick with his wife, Toni, who approaches the ham experience from a completely different wavelength.
For Toni, who has only been licensed for a year, ham is a competitive sport. She sits at the equipment for hours seeing how many contacts she can make around the globe during a set period of time. Her biggest goal is to someday reach the International Space Station. Increased sun activity will increase her count and her chances for connecting with the ISS ham shack, 254 miles above Earth.
“I put this along with going to the gym. It’s a lifestyle for me,” she said. “It involves using a part of my body — my brain — in ways I wouldn’t otherwise use it. I can’t think of a better way to broaden your horizons than ham.”
Toni is one of the many ham operators who track their connections in official logs, which they enter into global contests — the competitive aspect another reason she calls it a sport.
Some ham operators consider it an art and are constantly experimenting with the intangible medium of radio waves.
“That’s the part that fascinates me,” said Michael Robinson of Horseshoe Bay, the club’s lead volunteer examiner coordinator and trustee of its call sign K5HLA. “If it hadn’t been for ham operators way back when, we wouldn’t have televisions, radios, cellphones. That was all from people testing the laws of physics to see how it applies to the real world.”
Robinson experiments with antennas, electronic components, and circuitry so he can reach out and talk to people around the globe. He has regular conversations with a gentleman in Haifa, Israel. He once talked to a group in England for eight hours, something that usually can only be done via a stationary amateur radio satellite, which the United States does not have.
“Amateur radio satellites are the grand experiment,” Robinson said.
Some hams experiment by bouncing their signals off the moon or meteorites.
“Experimentation drives ham radio,” current HLARC President Al Chitwood concurred, adding that he does not consider himself a ham pioneer. However, he followed that comment with this story.
Right after he earned his Federal Communications Commission license, a friend lent him equipment to use, but neither of them had an antenna.
Chitwood pulled a mattress box springs out of a pile of rubble slated for the junkyard and hung it in a tree about 6 feet off the ground. He ran a transmission line from the equipment to the metal springs and stuck a grounding rod in the soil under the tree.
“I literally made my first call using an old set of bed springs as an antenna,” he said. “I put out a CQ, a call that I wanted to talk to someone. A gentleman on Kodiak Island, Alaska, answered me.”
Point being that all ham operators are explorers.
A retired law enforcement officer now living in Bertram, Chitwood fell in love with radio when he was 5 years old.
“A neighbor came over and he had music coming out of his pocket,” Chitwood said. “That was the first transistor radio my father or I had ever seen.”
Soon, he built his own crystal radio set.
“I could put an earbud in my ear and use a tuning rod to hear the Grand Ole Opry from my bedroom without electricity,” he said. “I was hooked.”
Getting others hooked, trained, licensed, and experimenting defines the purpose of the Highland Lakes Amateur Radio Club. The group holds Ham Slams several times a year to teach and run license exams. It holds an annual field day, which this year was June 26. At 8:30 p.m. every Sunday, the club schedules a net during which members can practice emergency protocols.
The club has a fully equipped ham communications trailer used to help counties such as Blanco that don’t have the same capabilities. The group also has ham stations set up in the hospitals in Burnet and Marble Falls. Individually, members keep backup batteries and generators in case the power goes out.
“My ham shack is in a box,” Chitwood said. “From my house, I can connect short distances or I can go to high frequency and talk to the world.”
Robinson has ham units in his home and car. The Hauers, who live in an RV, have a garage bigger than their home that serves as their base.
An enthusiastic newcomer, Toni hopes to inspire more women and young people to get involved in ham and the club.
“It’s really expanding my world geography,” she said. “I had no idea where some of these places were. When I connect someplace, I go and look and see how far away they are from me.”
To be a ham operator requires a license from the FCC. Licenses come in three levels: technician class, general class, and extra class. Each level allows you access to more frequencies.
Equipment is fairly cheap and easy to obtain, whether ordering online or buying from each other. Ham operators are all ready and eager to help newcomers to the sport, art, or service, whatever handle you want to give it.
“You learn as you do this way,” said Chitwood, who studied books to prepare for his first exam. “It’s more fun this way.”
Contact information for the Highland Lakes Amateur Radio Club can be found on the club’s website at HLARC.org.