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Emma Murray, Published June 23 2011

Ham radio enthusiasts enjoy a hobby with a purpose

SABIN, Minn. – Gurnee Bridgman of Fargo is a “ham,” but not in the usual goofy sense of the word.

Since the mid-1950s, Bridgman, a member of the Red River Radio Amateurs, has been a licensed ham radio operator, more commonly known in the amateur radio world as a “ham.”

Ham radios run on battery or generator power and are often the only means of communication left during and after disasters

On Saturday, Bridgman and other hams of the Red River club of about 50 members, will be “hamming” it up at the Sabin city park.

As part of the American Radio Relay League’s annual Field Day event, more than 35,000 hams nationwide will practice their operating skills for emergency preparedness purposes.

“Basically, we test our skills in becoming useful when we are needed in the case of events like Wadena,” he said. A tornado devastated Wadena, Minn., a year ago.

The group’s members consider themselves a service organization working with other organizations such as the Salvation Army, National Weather Service, Fargo Marathon and other charity events for traffic purposes, Bridgman said.

Beyond providing public service, hams also get to talk with people from around the world, making it a fun hobby Bridgman said.

“We have things called QSL cards. QSL is essentially shorthand for contact, and some people want to talk to every country in the world,” Bridgman said. “You mail your QSL cards to (your contact) and they mail theirs to you. North Dakota is particularly one of the highly desirable spots because there are so few of us here.”

From talking to someone in Antarctica to helping in times of natural disasters, the ham radio hobby creates a lot of memories, Bridgman said.

During the 1997 flood, Bridgman patrolled the dike near Fargo’s Lindenwood Park, leaving him with an unforgettable memory.

“A gal came out at 3 in the morning to hand me coffee and a cookie,” he said. “I remember that because you don’t expect someone to come out and hand you a cup of coffee and a cookie at 3 in the morning, but she knew we (hams) were walking the dike that was behind her home.”

Les Herbranson, a member of the Red River club and volunteer commissioner for the Camp Wilderness Boy Scouts in Park Rapids, Minn., wants to create interest in ham radios among young people. He formed the Camp Wilderness Amateur Radio Club.

“We teach the kids all about what radio is and so forth,” he said, “and in one week’s time if they really study hard, we have some people that come down from the Bemidji Radio Club that are volunteer examiners who will test the kids. If they pass, they get their license.”

Herbranson said safety is the No. 1 reason the club exists.

The National Weather Service relies on hams to spot rotation or tornadoes that don’t show up on the Doppler radar, he said.

“People don’t realize that here in Fargo the Doppler radar from Mayville (N.D.) does not see below 2,400 feet and when you go up to Park Rapids it doesn’t see below 14,000 feet,” Herbranson said.

Camp Wilderness and other ham radio education programs are helping to keep ham radios alive.

“When all else fails, Homeland Security and FEMA put us as a last line of defense,” Herbranson said. “Amateur radio is the last line of defense, when all else fails,” Herbranson said. “We are the ones that still can communicate.”

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Emma Murray at (701) 241-5480