Iditarod

From the March 2000 Newsletter:

Note from the Editor I am dedicating most of this newsletter to the brave souls that were on the 1987 Iditarod trail and some of the letters that I have received from them. What with is being the first on of the new century and one of the largest. So sit back and enjoy the letters from the front lines so to speak.


Alascom News Release
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
March 4, 1987
For Further Information: Jim Larsen; 264-7000

AMATEUR RADIO NETWORK KEY TO IDITAROD COMMUNICATIONS

When Susan Butcher’s team was stomped by a rampaging moose during the 1985 Iditarod she needed advice in a hurry.
Fifteen of her 17 dogs were hurt. Susan had to describe the injuries to her veterinarian in Anchorage to determine whether she should continue the race.
There’s no phone at the Rabbit Lake checkpoint, her first stop after the moose encounter, so Susan turned to Joe Kyle, NL7CP, the amateur radio operator in charge of communications there. Though Kyle and a fellow HAM in Anchorage, Susan was on the phone to her vet.
Based on the vet’s advice, Susan scratched from the race. The HAM then radioed for a plane to medvac her most critically injured dogs to Anchorage for surgery.
Easy? It sounds that way because, even in frontier Alaska, we’ve gotten used to relying on complicated technology — the kind that carries advice from an Anchorage veterinarian to an anxious mushier calling from a tent in the wilderness.
But it takes technical expertise, mounds of equipment and a lot of people to set up a communications network like that used on the Iditarod. It’s a system that must function in savage weather and primitive conditions.
It’s operated by the 100-member team of amateur communicators who volunteer their services and personal equipment to support the race. Twenty-five HAMS are stationed at checkpoints on the 1,200-mile trail, with another 75 in Anchorage, Nome, Fairbanks and other locations throughout the state.
The report the musters’ times in and out of checkpoints. They handle medevac requests, relay messages for food and supplies, communicate flight plans and provide weather updates.

And, just in case, the Hams are there to provide emergency communications too.

“One of the major reasons we rely on Hams is tradition,” says Iditarod Communications Manager Jim Larsen, AL7FS. “Our statewide phone netwide has been completed only within the past 10 years. Prior to that, communications in Bush Alaska meant radio.

“Also, our phone network doesn’t cover every location along the Idiarod,” he explains. Nine of the 25 checkpoints aren’t permanent locations, or are too small for installation of a phone.

Larsen, a member of the Anchorage Amateur Radio Club and an Alascom marketing representative, says activity on the sun’s surface has caused a change in race communications technology.

We’re in that part of a solar cycle when high frequency radio signals are at their poorest, especially in these northern latitudes,” he explains.

“For years we used HF sets which bounce their signals off the ionosphere. But now, we can’t rely on that system so we’ve begun using another kind of radio that operates on very high frequencies.

VHF signals are fed into repeaters which beam them to Alascom’s communications satellite, Aurora 1. Race officials in Anchorage and Nome and any other VHF operator in between can pluck the messages from the satellite.

The communications firm has donated and installed three repeaters — at Tatalina, Unalakleet and Nome -dedicated solely to the Iditarod Race. The Tatalina repeater is connected by a 17-mile Alascom microwave link to a satellite earth station at McGrath.

A fourth repeater in Anchorage serves two purposes: It connects race headquarters in the Clarion Hotel with the entire VHF network and relays signals from nearby checkpoints at Settlers Bay, Rabbit Lake and Skwetna to the Clarion.

A fifth dedicated repeater will be installed next year at Galena for the 1988 Iditarod which will be run on trail’s northern route.

Larsen explains even the modern VHF system has its drawbacks:

“It’s a line-of-sight system,” he says. “That means it doesn’t work at all or is just marginally effective in the mountains. Operators at checkpoints in Finger Lake, Rainy Pass and Rohn on the southern portion of the trail and Elim, Golovin and White Mountain on the northern portion don’t have a clear shot at repeaters.”

Larson says Hams at those locations will probably have to relay messages via their HF sets to fellow Hams near the repeaters who then will re-transmit them on VHF frequencies.

“Besides,” he notes, “if a repeater goes down, the HF is a great backup system.”

In addition to the voice links, Alascom is proving race officials with teletype terminals in Nome and Anchorage for hard-copy traffic. That usually consists of logistical requests and information relayed from mushers and race officials through the Hams at the checkpoints, Larsen says.

Alascom also is programming its AlaskaNet data system to carry race progress reports. News editors and school teachers who have computers and modems will have access to that system which will provide a list of the mushers and up-to-date progress through trail checkpoints.

Anchorage-area fans can read those AlaskaNet messages at the Valley Feed and Seed Co. in Eagle River, or at one of the Iditarod Shops, on the east end of the Northway Mall and at 805 W. 4th Ave.

The information will be available in two Fairbanks locations, the Iditarod Shop in the Bentley Mall, and Empire Electronics in the Washington Plaza, 3411 Airport Way.

Larsen calculates his company’s contribution to the Last Great Race at $50,000.00. In addition to equipment and service contributions, he notes Alascom pays for the HAMs round trip air transportation to their wilderness checkpoints and purchases the food they eat while on the trail.

“I hate to sound commercial about this, but I’m real proud of the company,” he says. “Alascom’s been involved in the race since it got going in 1973 and I think its contributions have been significant in continuing some great Alaska traditions.”

Larsen says he and his fellow Hams enjoy working the race because of the challenges inherent in operating from remote locations and under the pressures generated by the competition.

“And what we learn on the race — operations in tough conditions, message handling, gear packing and transportation — is very transferable. When major disasters strike and we’re needed, we’re a lot more prepared because of the Iditarod.”

 


Iditarod 87 – Relay to Net Control

by EM Mockerman, KL7GID

It is 1956 Alaska Standard Time and breaking the cold winter silence of the 75 meter band on 3.940 MHz, a YL’s voice startles the listener as she calls repeatedly: LK7AA Iditarod Headquarters this is KL7NG Shaktoolik…. KL7AA Anchorage this is KL7NG KL7VY Nome this is KL7NG Shaktoolik. Do you copy? Nothing but silence, and you wonder what is happening in this little Alaskan village a hundred miles south of the Arctic Circle. Bemji Menard, KL7NG, is just one of the thirty or more Ham Radio Operators stationed at the various check points on the Iditarod Trail – the longest, toughest dog sled race in the world, m ore than 1100 miles across the frozen North from Anchorage to Nome.

Band conditions have been marginal the last few days as 55 dog mushers pass through the check points winding their way to Nome. Arctic blizzards are facing the front runners and several teams have holed up at Kaltag and Unalakleet, waiting out the 70 mile an hour winds and the 50 below zero temperatures. Weather reports have been passed between stations and headquarters, race officials are on the alert for living conditions as they arrange shuttles of veterinarian and dog food and supplies along the length of the trail. In other words, it is a time of tension and concern for the well-being of all the race participants, and it is no wonder that the voice of LK7NG commands the attention she is about to receive…

KL7NG this is KL7LA Montana Creek. I copy, Bemji. Go ahead! Montana Creek is located more than 350 miles from Shaktoolik and is the home of KL7LA and KL7JKW who have served as a relay station since the race first began. Located a hundred miles north of Anchorage at the foot of Mt. McKinley, their antennas cover the entire State of Alaska and if they can’t copy a signal on the airwaves, almost no one else in the state can either. And now…the fantastic story of at least forty more radio operators who back up the trail communications from as far away as Portland, Oregon to KB6GOZ on the United States Coast Guard Cutter Midgett, cruising the Bering Sea on Search and Rescue Missions.

KL7NG, KL7NG, KL7NG Shaktoolik…this is KB6GOZ on the Cutter Midgett. I copy. Go ahead with your traffic. And Bemji has made contact! At least five stations have her turned in – from Fairbanks K7JUT to KL7GID Big Lake to KL7JDR Soldotna. Her message is vital. Susan Butcher has just arrived at Shaktoolik with 12 dogs. The world is listening! Susan is the front runner in the race to Nome this year and will eventually be the second-time winner at the close of this race. No wonder this message gains the attention of everyone listening on the band. A new T-shirt is about to hit the market emblazoned with attractive lettering which says, “Alaska – where men are men and women win the Iditarod!”

But this is not the only important message relayed through the system of dedicated operators standing by to copy and to forward information when band conditions and propagation prevent headquarters from having direct contact. More than 600 dogs are also on the trail and 20 veterinarians and 6 Dr. and host of trail breakers and checkers and race officials; all requiring services available only through amateur radio, Chief Veterinarian Jim Leach, KL7TK, on 2 meters from his aircraft flying the trail, arranges the travel of his staff while journeying from Unalakleet to Koyuk. Trail Boss Jack Niggemeyer, contacts his Chief Pilot Danny Davidson through AL7HU to warn him of the incoming storm which will isolate 7 teams between Koyuk and White Mountain. Rookie Wisher John Gourley, checked out of Koyuk at 1705 hours on the 20th with 11 dogs; it is now the 23rd of March and he has not been seen. Winds in the area are estimated at 0 miles per hour, temperatures 40-50 below zero, ground blizzards have grounded all airplanes along this part of the trail. Rookie Lozano reports by radio that he is now in Golovin and he did not see Gourley on the trail. Relay stations pick up the message and forward it to headquarters in Anchorage and Nome. Pilots are alerted and stand by for the weather to improve; W7IPB at Koyuk arranges with the mayor of the village to send two snow machiners out on the trail, into the blizzard to locate the lost musher; AL7GN at Elim arranges for four snow machiners to leave in the opposite direction to cover the other half of the 48 miles between the two villages. The radios crackle with traffic of search and rescue. Word comes back after several hours that the two search parties met each other on the trail…no dog musher was found! The 2 meter satellite link goes down and communications between check points is dependent upon relay stations to copy and forward their traffic. The hour is late, skip conditions have stretched out and N7IKH, Wheeler, Oregon informs the group that he copies all stations and will stand by on frequency!

What a thrill!!! What an opportunity to be of service! What a reward for a small or great investment in equipment and long hours of research and antenna design. What a fraternity to belong to! How interesting to hear a weather report from NL7DK at Unalakleet: 0715-Wind Calm-Ceiling inside 8 feet-Ceiling outside 8 feet! Snowing! And even more lightheartedness can be found in some of he routine messages relayed along the trail such as: “In Eskimo village of Elim. Wish you were here to cuddle with. I miss you very much. Love!”

And lest you think that CW (Morse Code) is a thing of the past, N7HER is heard calling in his arrival at Unalakleet, bag and baggage but without a microphone! Keying his transmitter with a screwdriver stuck in the microphone jack…

The race goes on…Susan Butcher wins again…but the race is not over by any means. Teams are still on the trail. The front runners make the goal at Nome in 11 days, but some will not arrive until April 1st having left Anchorage on March 7th and ham radio operators will stay at most of the check points until they are through. For some, this can be a trying time. Interest in the race often dies as quickly as it comes to life and radio operators must adjust to the local customs which are often full of surprises. KL7AVS calls out to KL7VY at Nome with the information that the folks who run his station have decided to close the building. He is now on the steps outside with no tent or stove! Lois English, NL7KE, logistics coordinator, comes up on the air with assurance that one of the lditarod Air Force planes will pick him up-hopefully within 24 hours.

KL7VL KL7VL KL7VL White Mountain. Do you copy? KL7VL KL7VL KL7VL this is KL7GID Big Lake. Do you copy? KL7VL KL7VL this is KL7LKR Nome. Do you copy? Nothing but silence! KB6GOZ do you copy KL7GID? Roger-Roger! KL7KR do you copy KL7GID Big Lake? Roger-Roger! Okay. We have lost Sharon at White Mountain. Will you see if you can raise her on 2 meters? Roger. No response. KL7VL this is KL7IKR. If you copy kerchunk the repeater….kerchunk! Sharon if that is you-do it again….kerchunk! Sharon-if you have high frequency kerchunk again…kerchunk! Okay you have HF. KB6GOZ will you try to reach her from the Cutter/Roger Roger. No reply from VL. KL7IKR this is KB6GOZ. I have tried CW, SlowScan TV and RTTY. See if she has copied anything…KL7ICR to KL7VL did you copy KB6GOZ?…no response… Sharon did you copy RTTY on HF? Kerchunk the repeater if you heard RTTY…kerchunk! Okay John we have some communication but not much. KB6GOZ/KL7IKR. So went the night and into the early morning hours as IKR and VL kerchunked the reports to Nome concerning the four teams in White Mountain. VL had lost the audio on 2 meters, HF was practically wiped out, but at 0300 headquarters knew what teams were in Nome.

These activities took place daily from March 7th to March 26th while mushers and dog teams and race staff traveled the 1100 miles to Nome. At some relay stations such as Big Lake and Montana Creek, radios and tape recorders were never turned off and operators were on the air from 0600 one day to 0300 the next without a break other than by an enthusiastic spouse. But what a wealth of information passed by. Relay stations have a distinct advantage during these events. With 2 meter and high frequency capabilities simultaneously, and operators often knew more of what was happening on the trail than any other station.

Sure it takes dedication to serve as a relay operator. But there is a compelling force, like a magnet, that draws us back every year. And at the end of the race, as check points are closed, there is a sense of sorrow that the excitement and fellowship during these hours and days of volunteer service are coming to an end. New friendships have been welded together, new operating techniques have been aired, new antennas are planned for the next race and when we meet together during the year we always say, “Whew! I’ll never get that involved again!” But we always do…see you on the Iditarod…next year.


White Mountain

by Sharon Dean, KL7VL

Hi, there, my name is Sharon Dean and I live in Palmer, which is about fifty miles north of Anchorage. I came to Alaska in 1971 from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan by way of California. I have always been interested in ham radio as far back as I can remember, but did not get the opportunity to learn it until I was in my forties, I am now forty-nine and have been licensed since 1981. This winter was my fourth trip out on the Iditarod Trail. This year I went to White Mountain which is about seventy miles east of Nome. I flew out on a commercial flight to Nome (a little smoother than some of the two and four seaters I have flown on to checkpoints and I don’t get sick). From Nome I flew back to White Mountain on a “bush” plane. “Bush” is similar to “outback” in Australia except this is this is Alaska and we have snow and cold. Anvile Mountain is a native village of about one hundred and fifty people and is sheltered by a small mountain for which it is named. It is located on the Fish River. I stayed in one of the Village’s city buildings. We had heat and electricity but we had to haul water from the lodge which was no big deal. I threw my pad and sleeping bag on the floor and slept by the radios. I sleep by the radios for two reasons:
1. passing traffic at night and
2. I like to talk to the mushers who come into the checkpoint.

We had a blizzard out there which caused a lot of static electricity and played havoc with my HF. It scared the heck out of me because I didn’t know what it was. I couldn’t even touch the radio it was so bad. This was about 0400 and I didn’t waste any time in getting hold of someone. I unplugged the radio, disconnected the antenna and grounded the radio. I didn’t realize there was a copper pipe nearby that I could have grounded the radio to in the beginning. Needless to say the static electricity disappeared. When Susan Butcher was due to come through, the Fish River looked like a small international airport with all the small planes on it, White Mountain is on a hill and I sure did develop some good leg muscles running up and down it during the ten days I was there. The people were very friendly and helpful. The radios were on all night because mushers would come and go in the night. Some of the nights were fantastic for star gazing. The temperature went down to about OF. The sunsets were some of the best I have ever seen. I have taken seven checkpoints on the Trail and on every trip my friend Murphy was along. My equipment is a Kenwood TS530S HF and a Kenwood 7950 2 meter. My antennae were an 80-40 meter dipole and a 11 element beam. This is one event I live for each year, besides taking part another events year around.

I was new to Alaska, new to Ham Radio and last year I had never heard of Iditarod. So … I was ready for an adventure. And that’s what I got, from the day George & I stood at checkpoint nine from the start of lditarod until after I had made a forced landing for running out of fuel in the plane on the way back. A little over a week of adventure that I’ll never forget and hope to continue during next year’s “Great Race”.

So… Day one we stood in the cold counting dogs and searching for numbers at the edge of the woods on the trail out of town. The first five or ten were exciting but after twenty or thirty dog teams had slid by it began to be old hat….”Here they come”, “What’s the number?”, “Hey, who are you?”, “One by Nine”, Two by Nine,” etc., etc., etc., for three hours. Yes sir…..Real adventure.

Day two was the day George (KV9D)Hurd and I (NL7JH) flew to our position in McGrath. Uneventful flight but I began meeting some of those wonderful people that made the adventure the fascination that it was. Benji (KL7NG) Menard spent the first night with us on her way to Nickoli. Our first effort at team work was to untangle the nylon sleeping bag from the zipper of the canvas duffel bag. Well it took all three of us but we managed it! Then on to the real fun of watching George toss a string with a wrench tied to it, trying to catch a metal hook to attach the antenna. After a few hours, this was accomplished and we were on the air.

Day three and four were scattered days of catching up on the positions of all the teams, perfecting out antennas, yacking with the locals, eating the fantastic food from the Cafe, eating the snacks provided by Iditarod, learning all the Iditarod workers, Bobbi Lee, Jack Niggemeyer, Tony Anthony, all the pilots, all the trail breakers, all the checkers, all those hundreds of people who all volunteer to make Iditarod. The veterinarians, one of which come to Alaska every year from France to help and take back ideas, Dominick. While he was waiting for Iditarod teams to come, he worked on the locals’ dogs. Explaining to me what was wrong “He have flies! You know flies?”. I was confused. “FLIES?”. “Oh yes,” he says and begins to hop up and down. “Fleas!!” Now I get it!!! Just a common miss communication as we all laugh and giggle at the thought of a poor dog with flies!

Early, Early on day five our pure first dog team arrives. Now we have pure, unadulterated excitement! Our very first dog team #51 Guy Blankenship slips into town at 0042 on Wednesday morning and declares his 24 hrs. Now we have something happening! From this point on days and nights begin to blend into one as the race comes full onto us. Messages passed back and forth, “where’s Bobby Lee?”, “How far is the trail marked?” “Libby Riddles, #12 has scratched!” “STOP!!! Big News!” Everyone crowds around Bobby Lee as he explains that Libby Riddles is now out of the race. The pause of shock doesn’t last Iong, the race still has sixty other dog teams! The continuous excitement blows by like a hurricane. Small snatches of stories get caught like a checker reporting that one of Jerry Austin’s dogs ran into a tree and it was dead and how would he explain a dead dog with a knot on it’s head!! Continuous laughter and then the tension builds… “Nicolai has had to evacuate its check point because of a local who’s decided he doesn’t like ham interference with his HBO Sounds funny unless you’re Benji Menard, KL7NG, hearing gun shots and shouting. Local sheriff is called and hurries to rescue the operation. Slowly this too calms down and passes by. There seems to be no breaks in the continuous information. Sleep is snatched in two or three hour increments and showers are wished for by each individual (for themselves and others too!!!!!)

Slowly the race passes by and excitement is heard in the voices further down the trail. MeGrath’s time in the line light is nearly over as the last three musher teams, the Colonel and his entourage arrive and declare twenty four hours.

Day 9, times up for me and I feel my adventure is ready to end. I’m exhausted and George says he will stay until Monday afternoon so that I can come home early Sunday and get some rest. I find a veterinarian who is flying his own plane back to Anchorage. Sure Lee’s got plenty of room in his Piper Cub. We take off at 1230 prepared for a three hour flight. The sceneray is gorgeous and I snap pictures of everything. I’ve never been airsick and even though the flight got roughten and roughtener, I really wasn’t worried. Then my head hit the ceiling twice in rapid succession and I realized my adventure wasn’t over! I lost my lunch and laughed about -aring my bag with me into the Anchorage Airport. However. didn’t realize I was to have a coupled of stops before then!!! As we passed Rainy Pass Lodge, the skies got heavier and darker. We tried to go over it but it was no use, landed at Pointilla Lake was a necessity. What a beautiful place. The vet worked on the horses and I listened to more stories about the Iditarod from the young caretaker and his wife who live the winter alone in the remote. What a winter paradise. Oh well, what a nice place to stop I thought and after a few hours lay over, the skies lifted and we got back to the initial plan of home to Anchorage. About an hour later we are nearing Merrill field and I know home was close. The vet/pilot had already talked to the airport and been cleared to approach. The plane coughed. Interesting noise I thought (not knowing anything about airplanes) “No problem” says the vet/pilot, “I’ll just switch to the other tank.” While I tried to assimilate what that means the plane coughed again. “We’re going down” says the vet/pilot. Before my poor exhausted brain had been able to prepare, or even to get scared we were nose diving past some trees. I told the vet/pilot I had, had enough adventures and really prepared to go on home, next year I can try again but I think maybe I might just dog sled home. It could be faster than plane!!!