Story by Jonathan Saxon | Photos by Daniel Vasta
It’s a clear spring day at Patoka Lake and on first glance, nothing that interesting seems to be happening. Sure, there are brief signs of activity as the animals make their rounds through the tree line and hikers mosey around the park’s trails. But nothing jumps out as being that strange or out of place.
But if you make your way down the road toward the beach, you stumble upon a different sight. In a clearing, there’s a group of men hustling around a picnic site setting up all manner of communications equipment. They have receivers, transmitters, web books and microphones. They even have portable towers and wires, which they’re using to set up antennas.
These gentlemen are amateur radio operators, specifically, members of the Patoka Valley Amateur Radio Club, and they have taken this late morning period to set up shop at Patoka Lake and see who else is out there on the radio waves. If they can make a connection.
“Blasted box isn’t working, I swear I charged the batteries on this before we came out,” says Mike Vogler, one of the enterprising amateur radio operators — known as “hams” — who is out this morning. He brought what he calls his “go box” radio, but it appears to be out of power and he can’t figure out why. Soon, his partners, Rick Hockett and Mike Maffenbeier, wander over to see if they can improve the situation.
Vogler, 70, serves as president of the Patoka Valley Amateur Radio Club, and the Jasper native traces his interest in ham radio to his childhood. He was fascinated with how he could point a wire to the sky and pick up audible signals through a receiver.
What started as simply listening to short-wave radios as a kid eventually led to some dabbling with ham radio in the 1980s. But other factors, such as his career and family, kept Vogler from putting significant time and effort into amateur radio operations.
However, after retiring and moving back to Celestine in 2010, Vogler noticed that, even though there were hams in the area, Dubois County lacked a dedicated club that could connect the various operators with others who shared their interest and enthusiasm in amateur radio.
“It was nonexistent in the county,” he says. “Forty years ago we had a ham radio club, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to grow this hobby.”
Vogler calls ham radio, and the things you can do through amateur operations, magical. He can talk for days about the science behind radio communications and how it has seized his attention for more than six decades.
You can hear the excitement in his voice when he describes being able to communicate with other hams, not just locally, but also across the country and the globe with a relatively simple setup of equipment.
So how do you get a start in the world of ham radio?
First, you have to get your radio license, which is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission. There are three different amateur radio licensing levels — technician, general and extra — and each level comes with different rights and privileges. Each license level requires an exam, which is administered by volunteer examiners, that covers radio theory, regulations and operating practices. That may seem intimidating, at first, but the Patoka Valley Club and other ham radio clubs in the area hold classes that teach interested prospects what they need to know to hop on the airwaves.
Many kinds of people are drawn to ham radio. Some are lured by the technical aspects and are enamored with the latest gizmos, gadgets and other technological advances that have come along in communications technology since the first radio was invented in 1895.
There are others who are drawn to the skill that goes with broadcasting and being able to transmit signals across great distances. Some see it as a necessary skill that could be the difference between life and death in an emergency situation, while others simply like the social bonding that comes with making new friends through radio contact.
For Vogler, ham radio allows him to indulge his more competitive side through his participation in special events and contests.
At his home in Celestine, he has a room set up specifically for his radio activities, and has a wall where he displays all of the awards and certificates he’s earned over the years. To date, Vogler has more than 3,200 confirmed contacts, with 85 being his high for a single day. He has contacted someone from all 50 states and 85 countries across all seven continents.
“I try to be competitive with that,” he says. “I contact guys real quick and try to get some points, it’s short and sweet.”