Out standing in the field with ham radio

The BigFoot-120 course map
The Bigfoot-120 course map

I had the pleasure of supporting the Bigfoot-120 race, last weekend. For those who, like me, have never heard of such a thing, it’s a 120-mile race that takes place over mountain trails—in this case, the mountain trails between Mt. Adams and Mt. St. Helens in southern Washington state. I was part of the volunteer radio-operator team who set up 10 two-way amateur radio stations around the course. In that part of the state, there is zero cell-phone coverage so, as on my trips to Honduras, the volunteer amateur radio operators provided the only reliable communications to support the race as a public service.

The race

The race started Friday afternoon and the competitors ran on hiking trails through that night, the following day and night, to finish Sunday morning. As if running mountain trails day and night isn’t enough challenge, Mother Nature contributed a series of rain squalls on Saturday. This made it interesting for the runners who had to brave the elements as well as for the radio operators who had to keep their tents, radio equipment, and antennas dry. Fortunately, the weather cleared on Sunday to provide some amazing views of Mt. St. Helens. I admire the competitors for their ability to endure over 36 hours of these conditions…while running up and down a trail through the mountains.

The radio operations

The radio operations were also a challenge. We had to set up our equipment in the rain and dark of Friday night and keep it working throughout the passing rain squalls on Saturday. We used the radios at each of the aid stations to relay information about the participants’ progress to the race coordinator. As runners would pass through each of the stations along the course, their times would be relayed back to the coordinator to make sure every one was safe and accounted for. The radio crews were also used to coordinate the spur-of-the-moment activities that are inevitable when you have almost 100 people running through the woods…at night…in the rain…in October…in the mountains. The radio crews handled their challenges quite professionally.

The radio geekery

The relatively short distance for the radio signals to travel allowed us to use 2-meter (146 MHz) and 6-Meter (52 MHz) VHF/FM frequencies; however, the mountainous terrain required us to relay messages sometimes. Every station could talk to at least one other station, but no station could talk to every other station. The professionalism of the radio team made relaying messages very effective. I sent my wife some email using the WinLink station I took to Honduras; but I didn’t find out until after the race that I could have also used it to send race updates to the outside world. At least we’ll know for the next race.

This adventure was the first in a lot of ways for many people and we all learned from it. The professionalism of the organizers and volunteers made it a success and a great adventure for all.

Official photos from the race

Meeting the customer

Photo of people watching the dentist and waiting their turn
Waiting to see the dentist. (From 2014 trip)

My wife and I were part of team who staffed the medical and dental clinic in Rus Rus, a small village 70 miles inland from the Caribbean coast and five miles north of Nicaragua. In our most recent trip to Honduras, I had  time to mingle with the people who came from miles around to visit us in-between my radio-operator duties.

I speak enough Spanish to carry a conversation, but that’s of only minimal benefit it Rus Rus. The majority of people who came to visit us spoke only Miskito. Nevertheless, I managed to chat with a few of the people who spoke Spanish. I didn’t plan to interview them, but my curiosity can be hard to suppress.

I’m fascinated by the insights that simply chatting with the customer can reveal (to the point I’m getting a degree in it). By listening to the locals, I found that our visits are quite welcome by the local population, but they can also be quite an exercise in patience for them. And, that’s after they walk for hours, or days in some cases, to visit us. In keeping with my theme for this year, I consider…

The Story of Luis

When I met Luis, he had been waiting outside the clinic for over a day to have a painful tooth extracted (after suffering with it for several months before our visit). Luis lived about two hours away by truck or five or six hours away on foot. At this point, Luis was getting pretty hungry because the last time he’d eaten was before leaving to come visit us.

The dental clinic is very popular on these trips, and there is always quite a queue for the services they provide–often, there are many more patients in need of dental services than we can accommodate. Not knowing that he might have a long wait to see the dentist, Luis didn’t bring any food with him and returning home for the night wasn’t a viable option. Luis was debating whether to return home (in order to eat) or continue waiting to have his tooth pulled–a difficult decision given the lack of information he had available. I hope he was seen, but I wasn’t able to follow up with him–I had to return to my duties as the team’s radio operator shortly after our conversation.

Fortunately, IHS of MN, the group that organizes the trip, cares about their service. Hopefully, we’ll come up with a way to help people like Luis come prepared for a longer wait, or maybe provide more information about where they are in the queue so they can make an informed decision about what to do. Because they actively seek feedback from the volunteers, I’m sure we’ll do better to make time.

On this trip, I’m glad I was  able to have a chance to see how our visits looked through the customers’ eyes and be able to provide that feedback.

Back from Honduras

The field hospital in Rus Rus, Gracias a DIos, Honduras
The field hospital in Rus Rus, Gracias a DIos, Honduras

I’m finally getting back online after being in Honduras for two weeks and then spending the next two weeks catching up to the life I left behind.

For the last two weeks of February, my wife and I were in Honduras working as members of a brigada medica (medical brigade) with the International Health Organization of Minnesota (IHS of MN). We worked as a part of a medical & dental team—my wife was an interpreter and I was a radio operator. The organization deployed eight teams to various parts of Honduras. Our team went to a field hospital in Rus Rus, a small village in the jungle, 60-some miles inland from the Caribbean coast of Honduras and just five miles north of Nicaragua in La Mosquitia.

IHS of MN has brought medical brigades to Honduras for 33 years. This was our second trip with them and our second time at the field hospital in Rus Rus. Last year, I filled in as an interpreter for the medical staff when I wasn’t on the radio. This year, we had a surplus of interpreters, so when I wasn’t working the radio, I mingled with the local people who came to visit the clinic and got to know more about them and their lives.

As with our trip, last year, it was an amazing experience. We had the pleasure to work on a dedicated team of volunteers who provided health and dental care to people who would otherwise not have access to these services.

More stories, photos, and videos to come!