HAMLIN TWP. – A wire extended from the railing near the top of the Big Sable Point lighthouse for about 40-50 feet where it powered a transmitter this weekend.
Inside the lighthouse, a group was sending signals while receiving their own, making contact with the world from Australia, Mexico, Canada, and all manner of places in the United States.
This was all part of a project by the Grand Valley State University Amateur Radio Council student group, W8GVU.
“We teach electronics and fundamentals through this business,” said Justin Wolters, who leads the group.
The group contacted the Sable Point Lighthouse Keepers Association, the local group that manages the Ludington State Park Lighthouse and three others along the shores of Lake Michigan, to see if they could come to the lighthouse for a few days.
Peter Manting, Executive Director of SPLKA, was happy that they came and were able to give the group the experience of a night at the lighthouse while researching, receiving and recording the transmissions.
Wolters said he was able to get the student group restarting after difficult times — from lost and stolen equipment, to student disinterest and even through the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In 2020, I started it again with Dr. (Nicholas) Baine here, and we kind of slowly rebuilt it,” Wolters said. “We are at a happy point of view. We have members doing things.
What made Big Sable Point Lighthouse attractive to the group was its location. Baine, the group’s academic advisor, said they had a downtown Grand Rapids location of GVSU’s School of Engineering that only worked so well.
“The problem with being downtown is you have these big, tall buildings, and they obscure where you can transmit,” Baine said. “The Everhart Center, which is part of our campus and right next to us and nine stories next to our two story building and our antenna on it, is right in the way of Europe. We can’t bring anything to Europe. We can talk about South America, Asia…
“And what we’ve found is that engineering students don’t want to do anything in an engineering building. They want to get out, and make it almost half-retired and half-still doing cheesy things.
At Big Sable, the radio was set up on a table in the kitchen of the lighthouse keepers’ quarters. The group of eight people who stayed overnight Friday night and Saturday slept in the living room and the bedroom in the quarters. On the table were a transmitter and receiver, a computer screen and a laptop. Baine said they plan to set up a secondary site outside of Saturday to send and receive transmissions.
Not only voices, but also digital messages can be sent via amateur radio.
“We basically send tones and the computer demodulates them on the other end,” explained Jared Burgeon, who is an adjunct professor at GVSU. “It comes in text form. This is a newer mode. It came out before the pandemic.
“We say a few years ago, but we forget the last two happened,” Baine said.
The students, who range from mechanical and electrical engineers to those who will become life’s first responders, not only honed their amateur radio skills, but also earned certifications.
“Having an amateur radio license on your resume is a really good thing,” Wolters said.
These certifications are useful. For Madison Willenstein, she said it’s amateur radio that can get into a disaster area when cell towers fail and power is sketchy at best and truly identify and help those working to save those in need.
“Amateur radio was started in the United States as a civilian readiness program, similar to the civilian marksmanship program,” Baine said. “Having a large audience that knows how to operate the radios means we don’t have to train them. A big part of amateur radio is helping out in an emergency. Whenever there is a hurricane that cuts out communications over a wide area, amateur radio will come in and help first responders.
Operators will do a field day with generators or solar or other alternative energy to replicate emergency situations.
“That’s how Nathan and I got started,” Madison Willenstein said, referring to her husband’s work with the National Ski Patrol. “As we started using radios where we volunteered, it’s actually a help.”
The team only used a 100 watt signal to broadcast, yet they were able to send and receive many signals.
“We don’t use the Internet. We do not use any repeaters. We do not use satellites or towers. We just use our yarn,” Burgeon said.
On Saturday morning, the team made contact with an amateur operator who had a 1,400-watt signal, Burgeon said, with what they believed was an antenna similar to an old television pointed directly at them from Pennsylvania.
“They probably have a big tower because we can hear them so well,” he said, later saying, “We have an omni-antenna that doesn’t have a specific direction it’s pointing… It was probably pointed at us. At 1400 watts, which is close to the legal limit, and we’re using 100 watts, he probably couldn’t hear us as well as we could.
Burgeon explained that radio operators also speak in codes. Part of code is readability, and that’s on a scale of one to nine. The Pennsylvania operator heard GVSU students on an 8 out of 9.
“He heard us at an 8 out of 9, which is pretty good. We heard it at 9 plus 20 decibels, which is huge. It’s a huge signal. That’s about as good as it gets,” Burgeon said. “And he wasn’t very far either. With this radio we can talk just about anywhere in the world.
Wolters spoke with the contact, using words for the letters of the alphabet to identify himself. The contact in Pennsylvania discussed the weather where he was – the rain – while Wolters talked about their view of Lake Michigan and the sunny morning that started the day.
One of the transmitters showed where the signals were being sent, and the team scanned to see who might be looking to have a conversation.
This is not the key antenna location to being able to broadcast, but there are two types of natural phenomena that negatively affect amateur radio.
“We don’t like lightning, and we don’t like (solar flares),” Wolters said.
A map of signals received Saturday morning after 8 a.m. showed that not only were they receiving and sending signals from Australia, New Zealand, South America, the west coast of Africa and parts of Europe. The team has listed the various operators contacted as part of its studies. Burgeon said they send a code over the airwaves looking for people to talk to, and once a response is received – which can take around 15 seconds of delay – a conversation ensues.
There is also a bit of a back and forth between the operators. Burgeon said postcards are sent to each respective radio operator they contact, and in the past they also received postcards.
“There’s this aspect of collecting, whether it’s collecting stamps or collecting cards,” Burgeon said. “You collect this station… There’s this culture of sending each other postcards. You make radio contact and then you send a postcard in the post…Once we have completed all our contacts we will print them all and post all relevant information and that is how they would confirm that they are are spoken. There are rewards you can get.
“Previously you would pick up the card and check that you can. Now you have the electronic check-in, which unfortunately derailed that,” he said. “Some people choose not to give the address. It’s pretty neat, a little tradition that goes back to the beginning.
The band’s postcard design when it aired was an image of the Big Sable Point Lighthouse with the band’s signature GVSU.
The group was grateful to SPLKA for hosting their weekend while they camped in the Lighthouse quarters.