The Highland Lakes Amateur Radio Club gears up for conversations, competitions and community



The excitement of Solar Cycle 25 could last up to 11 years for members of the Highland Lakes Amateur Radio Club.

Increased sunspot activity means better radio connections for amateur operators interested in emergency preparedness, participating in contact log competitions, talking to other radio amateurs around the world, or experimenting with radio wave activity.

“We are emerging from the bottom of a solar cycle and entering a new one,” club president Al Chitwood said. “The next few years are going to be great. ”

A split image of the sun shows the difference between an active solar cycle recorded in April 2014 (left) and a quieter period in December 2019. Sunspots became more active in January 2020 at the start of solar cycle 25. Photo with l courtesy of NASA

Sunspot cycles last around 11 years and oscillate between good and bad. A good cycle, which many say began in January 2020, means more sunspots providing solar energy production, or ions, which bend radio frequencies. The more sunspots there are, the higher the frequencies that can be reflected back to Earth. This activity is expected to peak between 2023 and 2026. This last solar cycle is the 25th since record keeping began in 1755.


Ham operators Toni and Tom Hauer
Toni and Tom Hauer keep their ham shack in the garage next to their campervan in Smithwick. Tom is the Ham Radio Emergency Services Coordinator for South Texas, District 8, which includes Blanco, Burnet and Llano counties. Toni records the radio connections for the competitions. Staff photo by Suzanne Freeman

For Tom Hauer, ham is all about emergency response. Hauer is the Amateur Radio Emergency Services Coordinator for the South Texas area, District 8, which includes Blanco, Burnet and Llano counties. Since 1935, ARES has connected amateur radio operators with agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Red Cross to keep communications open and services flowing in areas cut off by disaster.

Although it did not have to deploy during the winter storm in February, the club have been called upon to help coordinate services in Mason and Llano counties.

“Anytime there’s a severe weather warning, we raise a net – it’s all of our hams in that area,” Hauer said. “Then we coordinate with the other counties around us and the National Weather Service to make sure everyone knows what’s going on.”

A net is a group that comes together on air at a specific time for a specific purpose.

Licensed since 1961, Hauer lives in Smithwick with his wife, Toni, who approaches the ham experience from a completely different wavelength.


For Toni, licensed for only a year, ham is a competitive sport. She sits in front of the equipment for hours to see how many contacts she can make around the world over a period of time. Its biggest goal is to one day reach the International Space Station. The increased solar activity will increase its number and chances of connecting with the ISS Ham Shack, 254 miles above Earth.

“I put it on at the same time as going to the gym. It’s a lifestyle for me, ”she said. “It involves using part of my body – my brain – in a way that I wouldn’t use otherwise. I can’t think of a better way to broaden your horizons than ham.

Toni is one of the many ham operators who follow their logins in official journals, whether they participate in world competitions – the competitive aspect is another reason why she calls it a sport.


Ham operator Michael Robinson
Michael Robinson built this ham shack in his son’s car. Robinson is the Senior Volunteer Examiner Coordinator and Administrator of the Highland Lakes Amateur Radio Club, call sign K5HLA. Staff photo by Suzanne Freeman

Some radio amateurs consider it an art and are constantly experimenting with the intangible medium of radio waves.

“This is the part that fascinates me,” said Michael Robinson of Horseshoe Bay, the club’s senior coordinator of volunteer examiners and administrator of its K5HLA call sign. “If it weren’t for the radio amateurs at the time, we wouldn’t have televisions, radios, cell phones. This was all because people were testing the laws of physics to see how they applied to the real world. “

Robinson is experimenting with antennas, electronic components, and circuitry so he can contact and talk to people around the world. He has regular conversations with a gentleman in Haifa, Israel. He once spoke to a group in England for eight hours, which can usually only be done via a stationary amateur radio satellite, which the United States does not have.

“Amateur radio satellites are the big experiment,” said Robinson.

Some radio amateurs experiment by bouncing their signals off the moon or meteorites.

“Experimentation drives amateur radio,” said current HLARC chairman Al Chitwood, adding that he did not see himself as a pioneer of amateur radio. However, he followed up that comment with this story.

Right after he got his license from the Federal Communications Commission, a friend lent him some equipment, but neither of them had an antenna.

Chitwood took a box spring from a pile of rubble intended for breakage and hung it in a tree about 6 feet above the ground. He ran a transmission line from the equipment to the metal springs and stuck a grounding rod into the ground under the tree.

“I literally made my first call using an old set of bed springs as an antenna,” he said. “I made a CQ, a call that I wanted to talk to someone about. A gentleman from Kodiak Island, Alaska answered me.

The point is, all ham operators are explorers.

Amateur radio
A typical amateur radio, this one owned by President of the Highland Lakes Amateur Radio Club, Al Chitwood of Bertram. Photo by Mark Stracke

A retired law enforcement officer now living in Bertram, Chitwood fell in love with radio at the age of 5.

“A neighbor came over and he had music coming out of his pocket,” Chitwood said. “It was the first transistor radio that my dad or I had ever seen.”

Soon he built his own crystal radio.

“I could put an earphone in my ear and use a tuning rod to hear the Grand Ole Opry from my bedroom without electricity,” he said. “I was addicted.”


Attracting, training, firing and experimenting with others defines the purpose of the Highland Lakes Amateur Radio Club. The group holds Ham Slams several times a year to teach and hold licensing exams. It organizes an annual field day, which this year was June 26. At 8:30 p.m. every Sunday, the club schedules a net where members can practice emergency protocols.

The club has a fully equipped communications trailer used to help counties such as Blanco that do not have the same capabilities. The group has also set up ham stations at Burnet and Marble Falls hospitals. Individually, members maintain back-up batteries and generators in the event of a power failure.

“My ham shack is in a box,” Chitwood said. “From my house I can connect at short distances or I can go high frequency and talk to the world.”

Robinson has ham units in his house and his car. The Hauers, who live in a motorhome, have a garage larger than their home that serves as their base.

An enthusiastic newcomer, Toni hopes to inspire more women and young people to get involved in the ham and the club.

“It really expands my world geography,” she said. “I had no idea where some of these places were. When I log in somewhere, I will see how far they are from me.

To be a ham operator, you need an FCC license. The licenses are divided into three levels: technician class, general class and additional class. Each level allows you to access more frequencies.

The equipment is quite inexpensive and easy to obtain, either by ordering online or buying from each other. Ham Operators are all ready and eager to help newcomers to sport, art, or service, whatever grip you want to give it.

“You learn like you do this way,” said Chitwood, who has studied books to prepare for his first exam. “It’s more fun that way.”

Contact details for the Highland Lakes Amateur Radio Club are available on the club’s website at

[email protected]

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