MARQUETTE, Mich. (WJMN) – Much of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is rural, rugged and remote outside of populated areas. Communication is challenging, cell service is spotty and unreliable as is commercial radio and satellite communications. So how does an event like the UP200 maintain contact with all its participants who are literally competing in the middle of nowhere? The answer is amateur or HAM radio.
Amateur radio operator Al Augustyn provides amateur radio communications between race officials, emergency personnel, road crossings and the mushers themselves using his ham radio equipment. And all of it done on a volunteer basis.
“In the Upper Peninsula, commercial business radios and also really cell phones, of course, there’s many places that they just aren’t operational. What we’re doing is we’re helping to ensure the safety of the mushers and the dogs and of course, where they cross public roadways. That’s the primary function. The secondary function, especially at the amateur radio community, is to basically provide safety communication as to where they’re at and how they’re doing,” said Augustyn.
The UP200 traverses some of the most isolated terrain in the country, in conditions that are often less than ideal. Severe cold, snowstorms, high winds and the dark of night presents all manner of challenges, from logistics and dog sled tracking, to responding to emergencies along the route, where communications are critical.
“I can tell you the three posts that I work at on a regular basis during the UP200 cannot be covered by cellphone. And only amateur radio has been able to provide those communications. If a musher has an issue or dogs have an issue. We can relay the information they can bring in a vet, either to that location that we’re at or typically at the next layover, the dogs can make it but the safety of the dogs as you can imagine, is very important,” added Augustyn.
There are over 750,000 amateur radio operators in the United States and over 3 million worldwide. The reason they are preferable to cell phones and other types of radio communication is because the ham radios are the most powerful and longest-range radio service available to the general public. Amateur Radio is used as a compliment or backup to law enforcement and emergency response communications during a natural disaster when all other forms of communications are taken out.
Although Augustyn’s volunteer role is a very serious and critical one. It’s still a lot of fun.
“So there’s a fun aspect of the hobby and a lot of us enjoy being out there as well. Even though sometimes it can be a little harsh, environmentally speaking. It’s still a lot of fun for us to be out there and seeing the mushers and, and making sure they’re safe,” said Augustyn.