Hello, What’s Going On Here Then?

Do you ever feel slightly guilty about operating your ham station out in the big blue sky shack in full view of the public? I do. A ham station can look very suspicious to somebody who doesn’t understand the hobby.

Where I like to operate there are often signs with rules about “permitted activities”. The list usually includes such pursuits as hiking, dog walking and cycling. The signs always conclude with the ominous statement “all other activities are prohibited”.

On a recent camping trip in an Ontario Parks campground I noticed the rules have been subtly changed. It used to be prohibited to damage the trees in the park. Now it is prohibited to “disturb” the trees. I wonder if a tree is disturbed if I throw a line over one of its branches to pull up an antenna?

During a recent POTA activation I attracted the attention of a Conservation officer. I wrote about it here. He saw me sitting in my truck doing suspicious stuff (sending Morse Code). My hitch-mounted vertical antenna was sticking up about 13 feet above ground. I explained what I was doing in a cheerful, helpful tone and he left looking puzzled, probably still wondering whether what I was doing was a “prohibited activity”.

“None the wiser”

On another POTA activation somebody pulled up behind me and, looking at the same hitch-mounted vertical antenna, inquired what I was listening to. I gave him a very simplified précis of the Parks On The Air program and he too left looking none the wiser.

I recall another incident a few years ago when I was operating in a RaDAR (Rapid Deployment Amateur Radio) event. I was parked at a trailhead with a long vertical antenna tied to a fence. Two lady hikers were coming off the trail and I heard one of them say in a loud, aggressive voice, “well I’d like to know what’s going on here!”.

I have often wondered what kind of response I would give if told that operating a radio is a prohibited activity. One option might be to politely inquire whether the prohibition extended to cellphones too. I doubt the average person would understand that a cellphone is really a 2-way radio. My “phone” actually contains several radios; cellular, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS.

Would it help if I showed a suspicious official my ham licence? I doubt it. Canadian ham licences are very unconvincing. For a start it is not actually a licence. Mine is a flimsy piece of paper entitled “Certificate of Profiency in Amateur Radio”, issued by a government department that no longer exists.

So for me the best strategy is to remain unnoticed. Although I don’t mind being an ambassador for the hobby I don’t always want to be disturbed by curious passers-by. I might be working a pile-up or trying to dig a weak DX station out of the noise. Better not to be seen, or at least, not look suspicious.

I prefer to operate stealthily. My radio kit is painted in nice “woody” colours; shades of green and brown. I use mil-spec “ammo” bags for my bits and pieces. My man-pack sits snugly inside a NATO rucksack. When I took my field radio equipment for a show-and-tell at a recent club meeting the first reaction I got was “it looks very military”.

My NATO Rucksack

Well yes, it does look vaguely military. The military and I share similar needs. We both want to be stealthy, for somewhat different reasons, and we both want gear that is rugged and durable. Heavy cotton canvas equipment bags with metal fasteners may not be the height of fashion but you only have to buy them once.

There is a potential downside to being stealthy though. It is important not to look furtive. Keep a low profile but act boldly. Create the impression that you belong, that you are engaged in an authorized activity. Don’t let them see any feelings of guilt you might have. You probably won’t be challenged if you wear a high visibility jacket, a hard hat and carry a clipboard and handheld radio!

The handheld radio alone is a badge of authority. I used to write a monthly column for a hobby radio magazine. I was putting together an article about airshows and visited a local one where the Canadian Armed Forces Snowbirds aerobatics team were doing a display. The whole team’s aircraft were parked beside the runway before the show.

I wanted to get some close-up shots of one of the aircraft for my article. Clutching my old Icom handheld transceiver prominently in front of my face I boldly marched through a gap in the security fence and grabbed the images that I needed. Nobody challenged me.

Hey, I’m almost getting confident about this stealthy but bold business. As the old saying goes: “Softly, softly catchee monkey”.

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