HAMLIN TWP. — A wire stretched from the railing near the top of the Big Sable Point Lighthouse down some 40 to 50 feet where it fed into a transmitter this weekend.
Inside the lighthouse, a group were sending out signals while receiving their own, making contact with the world from Australia, Mexico, Canada and all sorts of places in the United States.
It was all part of a project of the Grand Valley State University Amateur Radio Council student group, W8GVU.
“We’re teaching electronics and the fundamentals through this venture,” said Justin Wolters, who leads the group.
The group reached out to the Sable Point Lighthouse Keepers Association, the local group that manages the lighthouse at Ludington State Park and three others along the Lake Michigan shoreline, to see if the could come for a few days to the lighthouse.
Peter Manting, executive director of SPLKA, was glad they came and were able to get the group the experience of an overnight stay at the lighthouse while also seeking out, receiving and recording transmissions.
Wolters said he was able to get the student group restarted after some tough times — from lost and stolen equipment, student disinterest and even through the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In 2020, I started it back up with Dr. (Nicholas) Baine here, and we kind of slowly built it back up,” Wolters said. “We’re at a happy standpoint. We’ve got members doing things.”
What made Big Sable Point Lighthouse attractive to the group was its location. Baine, the faculty adviser to the group, said they had a location at the downtown Grand Rapids location of GVSU’s School of Engineering that worked only so well.
“The thing about being downtown is you have those big, tall buildings, and they shadow where you can transmit to,” Baine said. “The Eberhard Center, which is part of our campus and right next to us and nine stories tall next to our building that is two stories tall and our antenna on it, is right in the way of Europe. We can’t get anything to Europe. We can talk to South America, Asia…
“And what we’ve found is that engineering students don’t want to do something in an engineering building. They want to get out, and almost make it half a retreat and half still doing nerdy things.”
At Big Sable, the radio was set up on a table in the kitchen of the lighthouse keepers’ quarters. The group of eight that stayed overnight Friday night and into Saturday slept in the living room and bedroom in the quarters. On the table was a transmitter and receiver, a computer monitor and and a laptop. Baine said they planned to set up a secondary location outside Saturday to send and receive transmissions.
Not only voices, but digital messages can be sent across amateur radio, too.
“We send basically tones and the computer demodulates it on the other end,” explained Jared Bergeron, who is an adjunct professor at GVSU. “It comes up as text. This is a newer mode. It came out pre-pandemic.
“We say a couple of years ago, but we forget the last two happened,” Baine said.
The students, who range from mechanical and electrical engineers to those who are going into becoming first responders in life, not only were refining their skills in amateur radio, but earning certifications, too.
“Having an amateur radio license on your resume is a very good thing,” Wolters said.
Those certifications come in handy. For Madison Willenstein, she said that it’s the amateur radio that can come into a disaster area when cell phone towers go down and electricity is sketchy at best and really pinpoint and assist those working to rescue those in need.
“Amateur radio was started in the United States as a civil preparedness program, similar to the civilian marksmanship program,” Baine said. “Having a general public that knows how to operate radios means we don’t have to train them. A big part of amateur radio is to help out in emergencies. Whenever there is a hurricane that knocks out communications for a large area, amateur radio will come in and help first responders.”
Operators will do a field day with either generators or solar power or other alternative power to replicate emergency situations.
“That’s how we got into it, Nathan and I,” Madison Willenstein said, referring to her husband’s work with the National Ski Patrol. “As we started using radios where we volunteered, this is actually a help.”
The team was only using a 100-watt signal to broadcast, and yet they were able to send and receive many signals.
“We’re not using any internet. We’re not using any repeaters. We’re not using satellites and no towers. We’re just using our wire,” Bergeron said.
Saturday morning, the team made contact with an amateur operator that had a 1,400-watt signal, Bergeron said, with what they believed was an antenna similar to an old TV one pointed right at them from Pennsylvania.
“They probably have a big tower because we can hear them so well,” he said, saying later, “We have an omni-antenna that doesn’t have a specific direction that it points in… That was probably pointed right us. At 1,400 watts, which is close to the full legal limit, and we’re using 100 watts, he probably couldn’t hear us as nice as we could hear him.”
Bergeron explained that radio operators speak in codes, too. Part of the code is readability, and it’s on a scale of one through nine. The operator in Pennsylvania heard the GVSU students on an 8 of 9.
“He heard us at an 8 of 9, which is pretty good. We heard him at a 9, plus 20 decibels, which is huge. That’s a huge signal. That’s pretty much as good as it gets,” Bergeron said. “And he wasn’t very far, either. With this radio, we can talk pretty much anywhere in the world.”
Wolters spoke with the contact, using words for letters in the alphabet to identify himself. The contact in Pennsylvania discussed the weather where he was — rain — while Wolters talked about their view overlooking Lake Michigan and the sunny morning the day started with.
One of the transmitters showed where signals were being sent, and the team scanned through to see who might be looking to have a conversation.
Not is the location of the antenna key for being able to broadcast, but there are two kinds of natural phenomenons that negatively affect amateur radio.
“We don’t like the lightning, and we don’t like (solar flares),” Wolters said.
A map of the signals received Saturday morning after 8 a.m. indicated that not only were they receiving and sending signals from Australia, New Zealand, South America, the western coast of Africa and parts of Europe. The team listed the different operators they contacted as a part of their studies. Bergeron said they send a code out across the airwaves looking for people to talk to, and once a response is received — which can take around 15 seconds of delay — then a conversation ensues.
There’s also a bit of trade between operators, too. Bergeron said postcards are sent to each respective radio operator they contact, and in the past, they would also receive postcards.
“There’s that collectors aspect to it, whether collecting stamps or cards,” Bergeron said. “You collect that station… There’s this culture of sending postcards to each other. You make radio contact, and then you send a postcard in the mail… Once we get all of our contacts done, we’ll print all of these out and put out all of the pertinent information, and this was the way that they would confirm that they’ve spoken with each other. There’s awards you can get.
“It used to be you collect the card and verify that you can it. Now you have electronic logging, which has caused this to go to the wayside unfortunately,” he said. “Some people choose not to give the address. It’s kind of a neat thing, a little tradition that goes all the way back to the beginning.”
The postcard design for the group as they broadcasted was an image of Big Sable Point Lighthouse with the GVSU group’s signature.
The group was grateful to SPLKA for housing their weekend as they camped out in the quarters of the lighthouse.