A group of nine members of Crystal Lake Troop 165 tuned into radio frequencies Sunday to connect with fellow scouts and amateur radio operators from across the planet as part of the annual Boy Scouts of America Jamboree-on-the-Air event.
Adjusting dials on various radio apparatus – which ranged from transmitting messages in Morse code to real-time voice conversations with people as far away as Texas and England – inspired the youth to express interest in obtaining their own government permissions to get on the air.
Members of the McHenry County Wireless Association brought hardware and their knowledge of radio operation to the Crystal Lake Park District Nature Center to help teach the scouts how to tune in and use frequencies that can allow communication across neighborhoods, counties, states, countries and oceans.
Assistant scoutmaster Bill Wacaser also piqued the boys' enthusiasm by telling them it is even possible to communicate with astronauts at the International Space Station during certain times of day with somewhat inexpensive equipment and basic know-how.
Amateur radio operators, also called ham radio operators, can be crucial to relaying information in emergencies, too, the scouts learned, especially during large-scale events that cause spikes in cellphone activity that overwhelm signal towers.
Remaining able to communicate during such situations was 16-year-old troop member Alex Tucker's motivation for saying he wanted to try passing an Amateur Radio License Exam within the next year.
"I think it's pretty awesome to have this opportunity," Tucker said. "It would be nice to have in general and in case of an emergency that there is no cellphone signal or something."
Noticeably more people have taken up ham radio assembly and operation during the COVID-19 pandemic due to having more time to spend at home during stay-at-home orders and just in case effects of the emergency outbreak make over-the-air communication helpful, said Gary Dembski, a member of the county wireless association group.
"It's a great, great hobby," Dembski said, adding that he used to help his parents tune into frequencies carrying conversations from their homeland Poland so they could hear their native language.
The pandemic became a topic of over-the-air discussion between Evan Ewertowski and Charlie Wacaser, both 11, and licensed ham radio operator Les Emanuel, who spoke to the boys from Worcestershire in the United Kingdom.
Charlie asked about how the coronavirus is impacting life across the pond, and Emanuel responded by saying, "The country is split up into hot spots and cold spots."
Emanuel added: "We have some strange rules over here. We can only gather in groups of six, or 15 for a wedding or 30 for a funeral."
Ewertowski found the experience rewarding, even with precautions in place like having the youth participants slip plastic bags over their hands while spinning tuners to limit the chances of spreading the virus.
"It was pretty fun," he said, adding he wants to get licensed himself. "I like doing this stuff, it's a great way to get scouts engaged."