Last week, Taylor and I were in Joseph, OR for the 2010 Eagle Cap Extreme dog sled race. This is the second year that the race administration used ham radio as its primary communications mechanism. Without us, they are limited to mediocre satellite phone coverage or use of the unlicensed short-range radio services.
The area is quite remote. There was some cell coverage in Joseph itself, but just yards outside of the tiny town there is no signal at all. Mountains and canyons make satellite phone coverage spotty and completely sub-optimal, even at the extreme cost it takes to utilize them. Over 250 volunteers spread out over a dozen locations across the 200 mile course means that there is a lot to coordinate.
The local hams utilized a pair of echolinked repeaters to blanket the area with communications capabilities. The Joseph (Oregon) repeater provided surprisingly impressive coverage for the northern bits, while the McCall (Idaho) repeater covered the southern part. With very few issues throughout the week, many places were able to get into one or both machines with a handheld or modest mobile radio.
I worked the 1600-0000 shift up at Salt Creek Summit. This snow park at almost 6000 feet could hit just about everyone on simplex and provided a good backup in case either of the repeaters went down. A ham from Pendleton brought his fifth-wheel travel trailer and parked it there for operating convenience for the duration of the event. A Honda EU-3000i generator running 24×7 provided power for the radios, lights, and other conveniences.
This was the first year that the event attempted to utilize any sort of amateur digital transmission, on my recommendation. I brought a packet BBS-in-a-box (a small JNOS setup on Linux) that I ran at the summit. We also provided an old laptop and radio setup for Race Central running Outpost. I had coordinated with Chris at Ollokot ahead of time to get him going with a similar configuration. Since the primary race communications were on 2-meters, we hoped to use UHF for the packet system to keep interference to a minimum. Unfortunately, we found that 35 watts from a standard mobile radio on 440 MHz wasn’t enough to fight the challenging terrain and long distances between the stations. We had to resort to using a 2-meter frequency, which meant that packet wasn’t really usable except during periods of inactivity on the voice channel. Thus, it wasn’t the resounding success I had hoped it would be, but the scenario was really a losing battle being on the same band. Next year, we hope to give 6-meters a shot, which we think might be a real solution.
Taylor worked the same shift at Race Central. She put her technical knowledge to work helping them to establish email communications with the external entities, as well as organizing the information that was flowing in and out. She did an excellent job of making the best of the packet system from the “other side”; We exchanged many messages during the race, timed appropriately to avoid interference with the voice channel.
We were both prepared and hoping for a bit more of a camping scenario. At one point, it was expected that we wouldn’t have the trailer up at the summit and that we’d be in a tent. Thus, I was over-prepared when I found myself sitting in a heated trailer with a microwave and a recliner. Taylor, being at Race Central, was always in a heated building. That area of the state is currently far below its expected snow level, too, which we weren’t anticipating. All of the other checkpoints, however, were far more isolated, with only snow machine access in and out of the camps. I think we’re both hoping that we can participate in one of those next year.
We had a blast the entire time. It was exhausting, rewarding, and a real break from everyday life. We’ll definitely go back next year, and I’ll be much more familiar with the terrain and operation of the event so that I can have a better plan for getting a reliable digital system up and running.