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Ham radio repeater connects lost hiker with help

BELMONT — Off trail, after sundown, as the temperature and snowflakes are falling, and with a dead cellphone, it seemed that all factors were against a local man in the woods Sunday evening. Yet he was safely home by the end of his ordeal, and was able to communicate with his wife and emergency services via his amateur radio skills.

Edward Lawson, 79, set out late Sunday afternoon to take a walk with his dog, an Alaskan malamute named Molly. They headed to a section of woods south of Leavitt Road, an area they were both familiar with, with the plan to do a short hike and then head home.

“I did not take my daypack,” Lawson said. Had it been a longer hike, he said he would bring a pack containing extra clothing, a flashlight, orienteering tools, and other equipment in case of unforeseen circumstances. But this was just going to be a short walk in the woods, so he left the pack behind.

The plan changed, though, when they got into the woods. Molly and Ed were feeling energetic, so they departed from their intended trail to head off a side path. Ed knew this trail ended with a need to bushwhack in order to meet up with a snowmobile trail, but what he didn’t know was that the area had been logged recently, and the area he had to bushwhack through now looked different.

When he wasn’t able to connect with the snowmobile trail, he realized that his departure from his plan would mean a much longer time in the woods than originally intended. He pulled out his cellphone to notify his wife, and saw that the battery was completely drained. However, he had one more piece of equipment: a small, handheld radio.

Lawson, a ham radio hobbyist, knew that the radio would be able to connect with a repeater set up on top of Gunstock Mountain, which would broadcast the signal across a network of other repeaters throughout the state. His message, asking for someone to contact his wife, was immediately answered by Bill Barber, a ham radio operator in Hudson. Barber also looped in Rick Zach, another ham radio hobbyist, who lives in Gilford and is familiar with hiking trails in the region.

When Lawson’s wife heard that her husband was in the woods after dark on a December evening, she called 911.

“They started a search using both police and fire apparatus,” said Zach, who was impressed by the industrious solution emergency responders employed. They positioned emergency vehicles in strategic areas around where they thought Lawson might be, and they sounded each vehicle’s siren, one at a time, at timed intervals. Then they radioed to Lawson to see if he heard any of them, and if so, at what time. Lawson didn’t, but even that information was helpful, Zach said.

“We didn’t know where he was, but we did know where he was not,” Zach said.

“It was certainly an interesting one, as far as lost-and-founds go,” said Lt. Evan Boulanger of the Belmont Police Department. He said he couldn’t recall a search and rescue operation involving ham radio use prior to Sunday’s activities. “Our operators were able to use ham radio as the middleman. We came to a good conclusion.”

Zach noted that the communication capabilities were only possible thanks to the development of ham infrastructure. The handheld radios, of the type that Lawson carried, have a short range, and wouldn’t have been able to connect to other radio operators on its own. However, around six years ago, the local ham radio community connected with Gunstock Mountain Resort to solve a different problem that each of them had, Zach said.

In 2017, according to Zach, Gunstock was interested in installing a tower so that they could use microwave communications throughout the resort. Ham radio operators had such a tower, which they wanted to install on a mountaintop, so that they could mount a signal repeater. There’s a network of about a dozen such repeaters in the state, which Zach said are primarily used to monitor on-the-ground weather effects. But they can also pick up, and repeat, signals from small, handheld radios. Lawson knew this well, and accessed the network as his only means of communication.

In the end, Lawson spent a couple of hours picking his way through the woods, until he saw distant lights and came upon Federal Street, where he met up with a crew of emergency responders who gave him a quick evaluation. He then walked Molly home.

While Lawson managed to find his way out of the woods on his own, and didn’t require any medical attention, he acknowledges that things could have taken a worse turn.

“It’s not like they provided me with directions on how to get out, or someone found me or someone assisted me,” Lawson said. “But, it was a great example of the ham radio community and the people that work on that network, and their ability to coordinate between the police and someone on the other end of the radio. Absolutely, they did a great job of it. And had things gone differently, it would have been more than helpful. ... If something had happened, such as if I had fallen or gotten hurt, or if Molly had gotten hurt, I would be in contact with someone who could call for help. It is valuable to have something like that in your toolbox.”

Lawson said it was an example of how cellphones can be unreliable, either due to battery failure or lack of signal, and how even experienced hikers can fall victim to hubris.

“No matter how short you think a hike is going to be, you should take your daypack,” Lawson said.

Boulanger said the incident also underscores how quickly a simple walk can turn dangerous, particularly at this time of year.

“The sun is going down much sooner than it was just a month ago," he said. "With the temperatures changing, it could have been a much different outcome, so we’re very happy.


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