My introduction to Ham Radio

A family friend of mine has long been an advocate of amateur or HAM radio. Growing up, I remember distinctly going to his house and seeing his home HF radio set. Before the time of computers, his radio dominated the room and all of the dials, microphones and keys reminded me of Dr. Frankenstein laboratory. When I was about 10, my father loaned me a testing manual to get my HAM license. I simply recall the book was very thick and there was a lot of wiring diagrams in it. This was a bit intimidating to me and the requirement to learn Morse code quickly stopped any ambition that I had to get my license.

Skip ahead about 20 years, and I found myself working for a video game development company. There, I had to good fortune of working with some of the smartest people whom I still call friends. Three of them had their HAM Technicians License which allowed privileges on the 2M ham band. At the time, I didn’t even know what that meant, but they quickly informed me that the license no longer requires you to learn Morse code.

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My Grandfathers Gold pan

When you travel the back country roads, you can not help but the search your own history for the thread of fact to help bind you to the location.  Since I can remember, my dad would take me out into the sierra, desert, mountains, etc… looking for history, looking for mines, ghost towns, or just a place of nature.  Being a son of western settler’s who reached California in the 1880s, I was well aware that my family was part of a vast wave of people who settled the country. Later, I discovered that my dad kept my grandfathers gold pan, he, like many others spent his time searching for opportunity in the ground.  

However, this does have its draw backs.  Many of the places I visit were simply not there when my family started to arrive, unless you count Ontario, CA which is now part of the urban sprawl which is Southern California.

My grandfathers goldpan
My grandfathers goldpan

During my earlier explorations of the Lucy Grey goldmine, my great grandfather was an investor in the mine, and like many other people did not fare well on his investment.  However, on the other side of my family there was another interested in gold mines.

Like many who are fortunate enough to known their grandparents, I didn’t know my grandfather until late in his life, by then his course in life was settled.  He had graduated from Berkeley, retired as a chemical engineer, raced sail boats, raised a family and retired and even had time to teach me to fish.  I knew that he did some gold prospecting but I assumed his attempts were similar to my dads attempt.

Camping and gold prospecting by horseback - Charles H Duffy
Camping and gold prospecting by horseback – Charles H Duffy

In the 1980’s my family was driving in the back country of Arizona, neat Prescott.  At some time during the trip, we were hiking up a stream bed and discovered some black sand.  My father related the fact that gold is supposed to be found.  We then loaded up about fifty pounds of the precious black sand and took our prize home.  I hasten to add that we panned all the material and didn’t get a single flake of gold and were the proud owners of two bad backs.

Charles H Duffy - Prospecting for gold at the unknown location in California
Charles H Duffy – Prospecting for gold at the unknown location in California

In contrast, my grandfathers attempt was considerably more successful.  During the depression, while studying chemistry, he decided that during the summer months he would mine for gold.  So, while on break he headed off to the American River in California and spent the summer gold mining.  In his descriptions of this time, his success was limited but “It kept me in beans”.  

I look at his gold pan now, and like the ghost towns and mine sites all across the desert, it reminds me of tough men, struggling to full fill their version of the American Dream.  One of those men was my grandfather, and I wish I knew this man.

Camping Tents

Our tent located in a large campsite in the Mid Hills Campground in the Mojave National Preserve.
Our tent located in a large campsite in the Mid Hills Campground in the Mojave National Preserve.

My wife and I just got back from a camping trip in Death Valley National Park a few weeks ago.  During this trip, for the first time we used a new “Family Sized” doom tent.  The camping tents sleeps 6 people, is tall enough for me to stand up, came with a rain fly and outside vestibule.  The new tent certainly had it all, which also caused me to think back to all the tents I have used and known.

Pup Tents

The earliest and oldest tent I have used was a 1950’s era pup tent my father used in the Boy Scouts during the late 1950’s.  The tent was nothing more than a piece of green canvas, two polls, wooden stakes and some string.  The tent had no floors and no doors at either end.  I used this tent once when I was about 9 years old, in my back yard.  My dad helped me set it up in our backyard.  From what I remember, it took about  10 hours to set.  Most of this was watching my confused dad trying to remember how it was supposed to work.  As I recall several of the wooden stakes split in the touch enriched soil of our backyard lawn.   Once erected, and musty and the smell of mildew filled the air, but after a few hours it was aired out enough to crawl underneath.  There was only enough room for my sleeping bag, and the tent was just tall enough that I could crawl underneath looking much like a WW2 G.I. going underneath the barbed wire.

That night, I slept under the “stars” in Los Angeles, CA.  It was a mild fall evening as I recall, yet somehow my dads old pup tent managed to make it colder.  Now having any doors meant that our cat could wander in during the night and scare me, which he did.  I woke up early in the morning, went inside the house and finally got some sleep. I do not know whatever happened to this tent.  It was better than nothing, but just barely.

Out Camping Tent at Homestake Dry Camp - A privative campsite at Racetrack Valley
Homestake Dry Camp – A primative campsite at Racetrack Valley

Family Tents

During the late 70’s my family went camping a lot with my cousins.  I don’t recall the true “owner” of tent, but the group had a family style tent.  This thing was huge and seemed perfectly suited to host a sultan and his harem.  Anyways, this thing was a beast and required a troop of 6 to move it into place.  I know for a fact that when it was collapsed from the previous trip my mom and/or aunt would spend a hour sweeping out all the dust,dirt and grime brought in by four boys,  It always confused me that each time we setup the tent again, we unfolded it to a cloud of dust and it was dirty inside.

These were great tents if weight was no object, but I suspect that these tents would not do well in a breeze yet alone a windy night.  There was a complex exoskeleton of polls which could never be assembled unless you had a masters in engineering.  There was one large door, and a floor, which is a much needed feature over my dads pup tent.  I don’t remember any windows, but I do recall that unlike my dads pup tent which “cooled the air”, this tent always ran HOT.

Modern Pup Tent

Prior to a spot horse packing trip in the early 1980’s.  Dome tents had yet to come into their own.  My folks purchased two pup tents for the trip.  The modern version of the pup tent was constructed with rip stop nylon and did include a floor, short side walls, a closed off back along with a door and screen door.  The tent did not include any sort of rain fly, so my folks made one witch attach using a three inch standoff my dad built on his lathe.  This proved very important as during the trip we were deluged with rain.

Dome Tents

Dome tents have dominated the market since they were introduced to the market.  They range in size from small two man models to large family sized.  They may contain multiple rooms, vestibules and some have a small door to access an ice chest to gain access to a much needed beverage.  All in all they are the best of the best, strong, flexible and lightweight.

There are no restrooms at Camp Phallus in Caruthers Canyon
There are no restrooms at Camp Phallus in Caruthers Canyon

Many years ago I was camping with a boy scouts at the annual desert caravan, which was a large camp out with scouts from around southern CA.  There were probably 800 campers there that weekend.  The previous year high winds buffeted our campsite, and learning from the previous year I came prepared.  During the day I erected my dome tent which was about six feet tall.  Knowing the winds were coming, I ran a guy wire from each of the polls out 50 feet.  Whenever possible, I would tie it down to a sage bush.  So, I effectively had my tent anchored to the earth in a 50 foot radius all around.  A few of my friends made fun of me for my setup.

And then the winds came….

Throughout the night, the winds howled.  It was far, far worse than any previous year.  It was difficult to sleep with the sound of the wind buffeting the tent.  After a long and sleepless night, I emerged from my tent to discover the damage done by the winds that night.  It wipe out the camp, the entire dessert caravan.  Outhouses were lifted and thrown 100 feet, and broke car windshields.  Worst of all, every tent was broken, torn and shattered by the wind.  Tent poles were split, bowed and broken.  Every tent was wiped out…. except mine.

Maps and Communications

In the days of tablet computers and smart phones, it is trendy to rely on the latest technology rather than maps and communications.  There is nothing wrong with that, however, it is still important to maintain a backup plan.  For example, any device that relies on cell phone tower will be virtually useless in the back country.  

There are methods with image caching, that you can utilize these types of devices when the cell signal is unavailable, which is great.  But if you plan for the eventuality that at some point that device will fail, or the batteries die or you visit Death Valley, you will be significantly better off carrying maps and communications radio gear with you.


The best backup plan is a quality map of the area you are going to be in. Part of any good trip into a new area involvces planning, what better way to plan a trip, is to lookup the area and learn more about it. There are a variety of websites which offer topomaps, such as not to mention that you can order high quality Topograph maps online. Maps such as these offer a valuable look into the area, and provide a level of detail not found on most tablets or GPS units.


It is always a good idea to carry a compass. A compass makes it easier to use the maps you have, or with general familiarity of the area area valuable tool to get unlost. Should you be willing to drop $400 on an iPhone or the latest tablet, spend another $4 and have a backup, which is probably more useful.


We run dual radios, one CD and one 2M 50W HAM radio.  Maps and Communications
We run dual radios, one CD and one 2M 50W HAM radio.

Family Radio, CB and HAM radios are huge assets in the back country. Locations such as Death Valley’s Racetrack valley don’t even try to offer cell service. Turning a cell phone on in locations like this, will just drain your battery turning your phone into a poor paper weight.

Family Radio (FRS) – Family Radio is very popular, and the radios can be purchase in pairs from almost any large department store for about $50. The radios are small, cheap and light weight and has no licensing requirements. They are limited to short little antannes and .5 watts of power. As a result, the range is limited, but work well in open areas over short distances.

Citizens Band (CB) – Citizens Band or CB radio is probably the standard communication system with many backraoding groups. Frequently, clubs will require a CD radio in order to join. The Radios can be purchased online or from some electonics stores, starting at $75. There is no regulartory limit on the antannae systems, unlike the FRS. In the United States, the Radios are limited to 4 Watts for AM service. There is no license requirement for CB Radio

Amatuer or HAM Radio – If you really what to reach out and touch someone, then Ham Radio is the way to go. However you are required to get a license and pass a test to operate these radios. Ham Radio’s may be purchased online or from a local electronics store. Mobile UHF/VHF units start at about $180 and can come with up to 75 Watts of power. Additionally the use of repeaters allow the HAM operator to bounce their radio signal thousands of miles.

Additionally licenses for HAM Radio opens up the HF bands. Mobile HF radios tend to start at $500 for the radio, and the car may need to be modified to operated the radio correctly. One of the many benefits of HF Radio is the ability to communicated beyond the horizon without the need for a repeater. Maps and communication gear is important, if you know how to use it.

For those interested in getting a HAM radio license, the practices tests can be found at: