Every year, ham radio enthusiasts descend on the Deerfield Fairgrounds for the largest ham radio festival in the region. It’s called the New England Amateur Radio Festival, or NEAR-Fest.
From inside an old army ambulance, Dale Gagnon of Bow sends a message to a woman in Cork, Ireland.
DG: “KW1I Portable.”
Lisa: “Who is the portable station?”
DG: “Kilo whiskey one india portable in New Hampshire. Name is Dale, delta alpha lima echo, over.”
Lisa: “Ok, Kilo whiskey one india portable. Nice to meet you Dale. Thank you very much. My name is Lisa. Your report here dale I’m getting you at a five and seven, five and seven. QSL.”
DG: “QSL Lisa. Very very nice signal. We’re at a ham fest here today and it’s a portable set up…”
Gagnon is a ham, an amateur radio operator. And he’s in good company surrounded by thousands of his peers.
Warren Elly comes up from Tampa each year.
“People come from all over the country. There’s people here from California, from all over Canada. And it’s a great gathering. A lot of freedom here to spread out, have a community for a weekend and enjoy the fellowship.”
Ham radio started shortly after radio was invented at the turn of the last century. And it became so popular in the ‘30s that the government stepped in to regulate the airwaves. Nobody really knows how the term ham became popular. It may be an acronym for Hertz, Armstrong, Marconi. Or it may refer to ham-fisted amateurs. But hams today embrace it.
LD: “…it’s kinda like a brotherhood. We all have interests in radio, we all have interests in electronics. And you get on the air with each other and you talk about anything under the sun.”
Larry Damour of Weare is another regular at NEAR-Fest. He’s hard at work cooking dinner for his comrades.
“It’s become kind of a tradition around here to do a spaghetti dinner around Friday night… We’re out here in the middle of nowhere obviously without cooking facilities. So, I have this old army field kitchen.”
Damour’s diesel-based field kitchen cooks enough to feed about 100 people.
NEAR-Fest is not only about camaraderie. It also includes a big electronic junk swap. And that’s what attracts Andre Champagne and Gabriel Brodeur. They drove five hours to get to this festival.
AC: “Montreal, south shore Montreal.”
GB: “South shore too, the French city but close to Montreal.”
Once, Brodeur found a homebrew radio artifact here that he thinks is one of a kind.
“I buy something, it’s so old nobody knows what is that. It’s a big dummy load, 2000 watt. I never see this in my life and nobody see this but I bought here.”
AC: “You can find stuff here that you can’t find anywhere in Montreal or nearby.”
GB: “Or probably on the planet sometimes. Sometimes some stuff is very rare.”
But the festival is more than just a big junk swap. The festival also offers classes for novices—like the one Dale Clement of Henniker taught.
“I just did a class, a show, I light up light bulbs with radio energy and show how radio energy travels and how you can direct it and focus it. Because you can’t see radio waves but you can see light bulbs light up. So it’s kind of a non-mathematical way to get people interested and to ask questions, and a lot of them did.”
Clement is revered in the ham radio world for breaking distance records with his radio signal. One time, he says, he even bounced a signal off the moon.
For Warren Elly, there’s something magical that happens when he bounces radio signals off the ionosphere with nothing but analog technology and chatting with people thousands of miles away.
“You never get over the notion that you can sit in front of a radio set and send a signal to the other side of the world. That you can cross cultural and economic lines… It’s just astounding to me that you can talk to an individual in Ireland on a Friday afternoon and have a conversation just as if you were together in the room and share the magic.”
Next year’s NEAR-Fest is scheduled for May.