Thursday, March 3, 2011

When All Else Fails...

The ARRL has adopted the slogan "When All Else Fails..." to highlight the critical role amateur radio plans in the aftermath of natural disasters.  But what happens when "All Else" just fails on its own?  Last week I had yet another opportunity to find out.

Living on the edge of the world has it's communications challenges.  For many years up until around the turn of the century we were served by a robust and multi-layered communications system.  There was a chain of microwave relay sites going south that handled all the telephone and low-bandwidth digital circuits.  Most private networks were carried by satellite.  Commercial HF radio was still widely used across the north for aeronautical and marine communications.  The nascent internet was still a low bit-rate, dial-up affair.  Then the telephone company upgraded it's network.  The old analog equipment was replaced with a new chain of high bandwidth, all-digital microwave sites.  Suddenly, bandwidth was cheap(er) and plentiful.  Companies dropped their private satellite links and leased lines from the telco.  The commercial HF networks were still there but now they were operated remotely from the south.  In the same timeframe, Internet usage exploded and the "cashless society" emerged.  Paper money became passé as most people only carried debit and credit cards.  The digital revolution had finally arrived.

This wasn't the first time everything had come to a screeching halt.  About once or twice a year "the network" goes down.  In the south everything would be instantly re-routed but up here at the end of line that isn't an option.  Usually service is restored within a few hours and until then the stores put up "Cash Only" signs in the window and everyone grumbles about not being able to get on the Internet.  The only difference this time was it went down right before the worst blizzard to hit the area in years.

I got up Friday morning and like most people the first order of business was a cup of coffee and checking my email.  When all the usual troubleshooting failed to make the Internet work I grabbed the phone and dialled a long distance number.  "We're sorry.  Your call cannot be completed."  I had seen the blizzard warning the day before and I knew that we might be without comms for more than just a few hours. I dropped by the mayor's office to discuss emergency communications options, including ham radio, and just about the time I got home it started to snow and the wind picked up.

Visibility was down to near zero as I hunkered down in my shack trailer and started making contacts.  Around lunchtime I touched base with a "local" VY1 station (about 800 miles away) on 40m but most of the day I just ran stations on 20m in JT65 digital mode, smug in the knowlege that my little station was still firmly connected to the outside world.  The storm raged all day and all night.  Saturday morning I went out to discover that the snow had drifted in blocking the door to the shack and even covered the exhaust vent for the little gas heater.  I shovelled the door clear and cleaned the snow out of the heater flue and got back on the radio.  Every fifteen or twenty minutes, though, I had to force the door open and shovel the snow away. By lunchtime I was on the verge of being trapped in the shack and, although I can think of worse places to be trapped, I finally gave up and went into the house.

The storm showed no signs of letting up.  I kept peeking out the window to make sure my antennas were still up and, surprisingly, they stayed up all weekend.  That night the local cell phone company rigged up a satellite link for outgoing long distance calls so at least we had some communications.  I had let all my friends and family know I could get messages out via ham radio if they needed but most only wanted to update their Facebook status.  It was around this time that the novelty of the whole situation started to wear thin.  With no ATMs or debit card machines machines we pooled our cash and made a run to the store for necessities.  Canada has always been far ahead of the rest of the world in electronic banking and particularly so here in the north where banks are few and far between but just then it didn't seem so great.  It was lucky that we just happened to have a few hundred dollars in cash on hand because usually we don't.  Others weren't so fortunate and had to beg or borrow to get by.

On Sunday the winds let up little but at least it stopped snowing.  I got called into work to deal with storm-related issues out there and by mid-afternoon when I got home the winds had finally abated enough to start digging.  The snow was almost to the top of the door on the shack and I spent the rest of the afternoon shovelling.  And shovelling.  And shovelling.  By nightfall I was back in the shack and had all the steps and sidewalk clear.

Monday morning the winds were finally calm and the sun was out.  The phones and internet came back up and life quickly returned to normal.  I spent the rest of the day looking for my truck...

I know I left my truck around here somewhere.