Electronics have been a fascination for John Noakes since he was old enough to watch his dad operate his ham radio.
It drove him to study at the Radio College of Canada in Toronto.
It drove him to work in telecommunications for various government ministries over the years.
It drove him to spend several hours a week in the basement of his home, dotting and dashing Morse code out on the radio waves, trying to contact other ham radio operators in other countries and on other continents.
“I like talking to people around the world,” said Noakes, who has cut back to a mere six ham radios, including one he made from a kit.
And so the radio sits, on a desk in his basement shared by a computer, a wire to an outdoor antenna running up the wall and into a ceiling tile, other necessary electronics and two Morse code straight keys stashed neatly nearby.
“Usually, you give your call sign, location, name and signal report,” said operator VE7NI.
He wheeled the main dial on the radio, changed bands and picked up a dot-and-dash signal. He jotted down the information as he translated the Morse code in his mind.
He was hearing the signal of a man who was from New York, but was in the New Orleans area.
Noakes smiled as the message continued with several dots.
“He’s laughing there,” he explained.
Sort of a ham radio LOL.
Ham operators have to be licensed. They used to be required to know Morse code — like back when Noakes took the ham course — but not any more.
What keeps him tuning in is the sheer diversity of the people he meets through those wires, waves, dots and dashes.
“One thing I like about ham radio is you meet people from all over the world. You have a common interest,” he said.
Sometimes people who have met via ham end up getting together in person if one happens to be travelling through.
“I’ve met people. They usually don’t look like how they sound.”
He can usually pick up signals across Canada and the U.S. pretty easily. Asia and India are the toughest. It all depends on the ionosphere, which is charged up by the sun and which radio waves bounce off.
Years ago, when Noakes was living in London, Ont., he picked up a signal from a man who said he was in a jungle in South America. He was a missionary expecting a friend from Toronto to arrive in a week or so and he needed him to bring supplies.
Noakes was able to put the missionary in touch with his friend directly through a phone patch.
If the communicating-for-fun side isn’t enough, there’s also a competitive side to running a ham radio.
Contests usually involve talking to as many people as possible in a specified period, such as 24 or 36 hours.
Noakes likes to do the Sweepstakes contest in November, which challenges operators to pick up a signal in every state and province in the U.S. and Canada in 24 hours.
That contest requires operators to get 80 sections or signals; one year he got up to 77.
Noakes will soon participate in another ham exercise: Amateur Radio Field Day. On June 23 and 24, ham radio operators around the globe are going to simulate emergency conditions, such as being cut off from electricity, and contact as many other stations as possible.
They’ll use generators and batteries and some even set up trailers or tents in camp-like locations.
Noakes will be in his basement, but he’ll turn the power off down there and use an alternative source like a solar-charged battery.
And his ham will be humming.
“It’ll sound like a beehive in here,” he said.
If a disaster occurs — flood, wildfire, tsunami — power lines will be gone. And so will the communications that require them.
“The Internet and cellphones are going to be the first things to fail,” he said.
That’s why radio operators take part in the annual emergency exercise.
“There could be no power in the world and I could still talk to Europe,” he said.
Noakes would like to see more people get into ham radio, especially the younger generation. If only they could set aside their iPods, iPads and smart phones.
“This is way more fun than texting,” he said.